- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Public support for school vouchers has waned in the last year after peaking in popularity three years ago, according to a new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of public attitudes on public education.
The annual survey, the 32nd sponsored by the professional education fraternity and taken by the Gallup organization, also found widespread support for improving and strengthening the existing public school system over finding an alternative.
In 1996 and 1997, 44 percent of the public supported school vouchers as a method of education reform, but this year's poll, taken in June, found support for vouchers had dropped to 39 percent, pollsters said. Vouchers are publicly, and in some cases, privately funded scholarships that allow mainly poor students to attend the private schools of their choice.
"The notion the public is dissatisfied with its public schools is based on myth instead of fact," said Lowell C. Rose, poll director and executive director emeritus of Phi Delta Kappa.
"The data indicate that public approval of the public schools has trended consistently upward and is near its all-time high," he said. "And, as demonstrated in every previous poll, the closer people get to the public schools, the better they like them."
The poll's findings come at a time when education has become a key issue in the upcoming November general election. The subject of school vouchers remains an increasingly polarizing topic among politicians, educators and parents. It also is one issue that separates Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, who opposes them, and Republican nominee George W. Bush, who supports them as one option for education reform.
Clint Bolick, litigation director of the Institute for Justice in Washington, said PDK/Gallup poll's findings are out of sync with several other surveys that have found strong support for school choice options like vouchers, particularly among blacks and those who have low incomes. His public interest law firm is defending several voucher lawsuits around the country.
The Gallup report, Mr. Bolick said, "masks the voices of those most in need of access to quality education and expanded educational opportunities minorities and the poor."
"It seems to be more of an exercise in ideology than public opinion research," he said. "The pollsters proclaim that the public's opinion of public schools has never been higher, yet they gave more C's and fewer A's and B's than last year," he said of the public's response when asked to grade the public schools.
"The rosy picture is simply not justified."
Like Mr. Bolick, Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, decried what she described as a "word scramble" used by PDK/Gallup when framing questions about vouchers and the narrow definition pollsters used to describe charter schools.
While Gallup is a well-known pollster, it relies heavily on Phi Delta Kappa in how it approaches questions, and the public must be aware of that as it interprets the poll's findings, she said.
"PDK does not believe that reform efforts, from charter schools to vouchers, are viable approaches to improving public education," Mrs. Allen said. "As a result, the way they ask the questions is going to be influenced by their point of view. Their intention is to support the existing operating system for schools, which we know through a variety of more objective polls that people have some deep real concerns about."
The poll found that a majority of the public favors hiring competent teachers over parental-choice options like vouchers as the best way to improve the nation's schools. It also found that a majority of the public favors a more "balanced approach" over teaching the basic subjects.
The public approves of student testing, but not as the only way to measure students' achievement. Topping the list of the biggest problems facing public schools is lack of financial support, followed by lack of discipline and overcrowding, the pollsters said. Parents, not schools or teachers, have the greatest effect on student achievement, the survey found.
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the poll results encouraging and said politicians who label public schools disasters "are out of sync with the American people."
"Given a choice between strengthening public schools or providing vouchers, Americans see it as a no-brainer they support the public schools," Mrs. Feldman said.
"There's good reason for their optimism," she added. "Public schools have made tremendous progress in recent years. This poll suggests there is the necessary public support to make wise investments in public education and continue building upon these gains."

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