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Citizens Speak Out on Public Education

What do people think about our nation's public education? Some of the answers from two polls and a report may surprise you.

We've all heard the negative comments about the current state of public education. U.S. students lag in educational performance compared with their peers in other industrialized countries. Students today are not as well educated as students of the previous generation. Parents have lost faith in the public schools' ability to educate their children.

But when polls and studies actually examine parents' deeply held convictions about public education, a very different picture emerges. Here's a look at three different measures of public attitudes toward public education.


The Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, which was released in September 1998, ranges widely over the educational landscape. Certain questions, however, were designed to elicit general attitudes toward public schools. Respondents were asked, for example, what the states should do with the surpluses they are garnering from a booming economy. Fifty percent of respondents said states should spend the money on the public schools, while 31 percent say use it to reduce taxes, 14 percent say build a "rainy day" fund, and 4 percent say spend it on other state services.

Other findings in the 1998 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll include the following:

  • U.S. parents are divided over whether children today get a better education than they did. Forty-one percent say children do get a better education today, 48 percent say they receive a worse education, and 8 percent think there is no difference.
  • Sixty-two percent, or nearly two-thirds, of respondents think that their community's schools are doing what is necessary to foster understanding and tolerance among students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • A significant portion of respondents (71 percent) backs a voluntary national testing program that the federal government would administer to fourth- and eighth-grade students to measure the performance of U.S. public schools.

Perhaps the most controversial area examined in detail by the PDK/Gallup Poll is the issue of public funding for private and church-related schools. The public continues to oppose allowing parents and students to choose a private school to attend at public expense, but with 50 percent opposed to public funding of private school attendance and 44 percent in favor, it is apparent why this is a hotly debated issue.

Questions about vouchers yielded somewhat different, contradictory responses to the above opinion. Asked whether they would favor a government-issued voucher that would pay all of the tuition at a private school, 48 percent of respondents were in favor and 46 percent were opposed. If the question says that only part of the tuition would be paid by voucher, the percentage of respondents in favor increases to 52 percent, with those opposed dropping to 41 percent.

Approval for public funding of private schools doesn't come without strings attached. Seventy-five percent of respondents say that schools accepting payment from public funds should be accountable to the state in the same way the public schools are accountable. Responding to another question in the same vein, 70 percent say private schools receiving public funds should be required to admit students from a wider range of backgrounds and academic abilities than they now generally do.


Approximately nine out of 10 Americans say the way to improve student performance is to ensure a qualified teacher in every classroom, according to The Essential Profession, a national poll released by Recruiting New Teachers Inc. (RNT) and pollster Louis Harris. Qualified teachers were judged more essential in improving education by those polled than standards, tests, vouchers, privatization, or school uniforms.

"Teaching is the essential profession, the one that makes all other professions possible," says RNT president David Haselkorn, co-author of the report based on the poll. "The public believes that investing in quality and providing a qualified teacher in every classroom trumps all other reforms." For example, when vouchers were offered as a reform strategy directly against "doing what it takes to put a fully qualified teacher in every classroom," 84 percent of respondents voted for teacher quality in contrast with 17 percent who voted for vouchers.

The poll indicates teaching as a profession is held in high esteem. Asked which of eight professions they felt "provides the most important benefit to society," respondents rated teachers number one by more than 3-to-1. People ranked teaching as a career they would recommend to a family member (39 percent) a close second to medicine (40 percent).

"For the first time, the public is ready to acknowledge teaching as the solution, not the problem," says Harris, co-author of the study. "For the first time, investing in teacher quality -- including higher pay for teachers -- is being seen as the order of the day to improve schools."

RNT's report was funded by Philip Morris Companies Inc.


The public is beginning to take new responsibility for education, finds a report issued by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change" shows what is being called a "quiet revolution" in public education -- public involvement.

Researchers, with research partner Millennium Communications Group, looked at 175 public engagement projects around the United States. They discovered a major change in how parents, educators, community and business leaders, and public officials come together to direct changes in local public schools. This process allows communities to make tough decisions about public education.

"The most significant difference being made by public engagement is the dialogue and subsequent trust it has engendered. The disconnect between the public and its schools has been alarming; public engagement is beginning to repair that breach," says Jeffrey Kimpton, director, Public Engagement at the institute and director of the research effort.

Public engagement ranges from parent-involvement projects to public conversations about the goals of public education. "Public engagement may be a 'quiet revolution'," says Marcia Sharp of Millennium, "but it is making some loud statements about the goodwill and trust that can be established between the community and its schools. This phenomenon is contradicting the growing trend of those choosing to flee public education."


  • The 30th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools presents the online version of the PDK/Gallup Poll on public attitudes toward public education. Among the extensive topics covered by the poll are Public Versus Nonpublic Schools, Effectiveness of Public Schools, Politics and the Public Schools, Problems Facing the Public Schools, and Impact of Unions.
  • The Essential Profession provides the full national report on the survey by Recruiting New Teachers, Inc., of public attitudes toward teaching, educational opportunity, and school reform.
  • Public Engagement Said To Hold Promise for Schools, an Education Week article, summarizes the report by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change."

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Article by Sharon Cromwell
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