New Poll Finds Public Differs Sharply With Education Policy Elite

Jeff Bryant

The nation’s increasingly polarized political divide is often described as a clash between a right and a left, but in the education policy arena, it’s increasingly clear the clash is between a bottom and a top.

That’s a conclusion you should come away with after viewing the results from the 48th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

The new poll, the most recent in the longest continuously running survey of American attitudes toward public education, has some startling findings that reveal how out of whack current education policy is from the prevailing opinions in the public.

On topics that have been points of emphasis in the current education policy agenda, you’ll find public opinion that is sometimes starkly opposed or at least deeply divided or uncertain. On issues that seem especially important to Americans, you’ll notice either silence or indecision from policy leaders.

For instance, for years there’s been a drumbeat coming from politicians and policy leaders – Democrats and Republicans alike – to deal with schools with chronically poor results on standardized tests by shutting them down. Yet, according to the poll results, “Americans overwhelmingly prefer trying to improve failing public schools than closing them; the 70-point margin on this question is the largest of any in the survey.”

“This finding, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the divide between the reform agenda of the past 16 years and the actual desires of the American public,” writes Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International, who oversaw the survey.

Diving deeper into the data, you find differences of opinion on how to deal with struggling schools – principally, whether to keep the current staff or replace them, whether or not to provide the schools with more resources – with splits in opinion often correlated to demographics such as age, political party affiliation, and suburban, urban, and rural.

Yet, the simplicity of closing schools is what has appealed to education policy leaders. As Joan Richardson, editor-in-chief of The Kappan, PDK’s magazine, writes, “The number of schools that have closed in recent years is staggering. By one estimate, 70 large or mid-sized cities closed schools over the past decade, averaging 11 buildings per district. The number, of course, is far higher in some places. In Detroit, for example, more than 200 public schools have closed since 2000 because of rapidly declining enrollment. Chicago closed more than 40 buildings in the early 2000s and another 50 schools in 2013 in what was said to be the single largest mass closing in the country. New York City alone closed 140 schools since 2002.”

Also, public opposition to school closures clashes with the policy elite’s new infatuation with “school choice” and charter schools. The whole idea of school choice and the rollout of more charter schools is based on the market-based principle of making schools compete on the basis of test scores. As the lowest-performing schools are revealed to the market, parents are expected to “vote with their feet” (actually, with their access to reliable information and reasonable transportation) and choose the better-performing schools.

In the market-based model of school choice, school closures are a feature, not a bug, in the truest sense of the phrase. Leading charter school advocates tell us, in fact, that closing charters and interrupting more children’s education are really good things. According to reports from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the number of charter school closures continues to increase every year. Advocates for these schools say the prevalence of their closures is “tough, necessary medicine.”

Indeed, charter school students and parents often protest any plans to close their schools, just as vehemently as public school parents protest when they learn their schools will be closed or replaced by charters. So there’s little doubt the popularity of the market-based model favored by many education policy elites will continue to clash with public opinion.

On other important education topics, the PDK poll finds the American public supports policy directions that education policy leaders have been near silent on, or even staunchly in opposition to.

For instance, on the issue of funding, according to the poll, for the 15th consecutive year, Americans say lack of funding is the No. 1 problem confronting local schools. On an open-response question, that included many other options, lack of funding was mentioned by 19 percent of respondents, significantly outpacing all the other choices, none of which scored in double-digits of percentage.

Also, according to the poll, a clear majority of respondents – 53 to 47 percent – support raising local property taxes to help improve their community’s public schools. Again, there are differences of opinion, often correlated to demographics and attitudes toward schools, but the general favorability toward funding schools clashes with the obvious lack of action at the leadership level to provide more money for schools.

“The economic recovery hasn’t reached America’s schools,” reports an article at the FiveThirtyEight blog site, which points out that while “much of the debate over education in recent years, including on the campaign trail, has focused on expanding access to college and preschool,” the subject of “adequate funding for the years in between” has been mostly ignored.

More recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities present a troubling situation for schools in the year ahead, with 25 states still providing less funding to schools than in 2008 and local funding to schools down in 31 states. With funding for school construction and staffing showing downward trends, the blog post concludes, “Even as education becomes increasingly important for success in today’s skill-based, global economy, many schools this year will have to serve more students with fewer resources.”

Instead of the continued austerity, according to the PDK poll, Americans want to see new tax money for schools spent on teachers (34 percent), including hiring more teachers or raising teacher salaries, or spending more money on supplies or technology (17 percent) or for infrastructure improvements and building new schools (8 percent).

For sure, the PDK poll finds there are plenty of education issues where the pubic seems deeply divided or where opinion remains muddled.

As many news outlets report, the poll finds that Americans are not the least bit united on what the purpose of education is – whether the focus should be on preparing students for work, preparing them for citizenship, or preparing them academically.

Americans continue to give schools in general relatively low marks, while rating schools in their own communities relatively high. And they continue to be deeply divided on how to govern charter schools.

But what’s completely clear is that education policies that have been mandated from Washington and state capitals are mostly at odds with the opinions of ordinary Americans.

Of course, real leadership in the public sphere sometimes means clashing with pervasive public opinion. That’s how advances in education coming from racial desegregation and the inclusion of Americans with disabilities into the school community happened. But in an era where big money from the wealthy increasingly fuels political campaigns and policy shops, it’s more important to highlight this stark divide between what Americans say they want from education policies and what they actually get.

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