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A Thousand Voices for Choice

There’s a chasm in American education today, and it’s not just the achievement gap.

The Friedman Foundation released this week the “2014 Schooling in America Survey: Perspectives on School Choice, Common Core, and Standardized Testing.” Among the findings: a gulf separating parents’ desires for choice from the realities available to satisfy them.

According to the survey report, hardly a third of the 1,007 respondents identified regular public schools as their preferred school type, while the overwhelming majority, 61%, said they would rather opt for private, charter, or homeschooling for their children (this held true among both parents and non-parents).

Yet as the authors note, 87% of U.S. students currently attend regular public schools, leaving “a significant disconnect between stated school preferences and actual enrollment patterns in the United States.”

The survey delved further into public support for various elements of school choice and related education issues, offering a set of striking conclusions:

  1. Strong majorities of Americans—across the demographic and political spectrum—voice support for charter schools (61% support vs. 26% oppose) and vouchers (63% support vs. 33% oppose).  Moreover, only 45% would grade their local regular public schools an A or B, while 59% would give their local charters those same grades.
  2. Charter schools and vouchers remain unknown to large portions of the public.  29% of respondents were unfamiliar with charters, 36% with vouchers. Support for each jumped significantly when respondents were provided definitions, highlighting the importance of informing the public just what charter schools and vouchers are.
  3. Americans widely support education savings accounts (ESAs) and tax credit scholarship programs.  Parents in particular voiced strong approval of ESAs (by a 33 point positive margin). Tax credit scholarships received strong backing from Latinos (80%) and younger Americans (74%), and enjoyed 64% support (25% opposition) overall. (See CER’s 2014 Tax Credit Scorecard & Ranking for related information)
  4. Common Core faces battles of both information and ideology: Without definitions or context, 39% oppose and 34% support the standards.  When provided a neutral description, 50% support and 41% oppose them. However, the percentage of Americans “strongly opposed” (25%) significantly outstrips those strongly in favor (16%). Among Republicans and school parents, that gap is -17 points and -21 points, respectively.
  5. Americans disapprove of the federal government’s performance in education (74% label it “poor” or “fair,” compared to 22% “good” or “excellent”), and 58% feel K-12 education remains on “the wrong track.”
  6. Most Americans (62%) favor holding teachers accountable using standardized testing, though twice as many parents believe schools spend too much time on tests as say they spend too little.
  7. Americans vastly underestimate public per-pupil spending ($10,500, excluding facilities and other categories): Only 14% identify the correct range, and 26% estimate it at less than $4,000.

As panelists at the American Enterprise Institute discussed with Paul DiPerna (lead author of the survey) at the presentation of the results, opinion polls are not always the most faithful of barometers. It is encouraging to find widespread public support for school choice in the survey’s responses, but the movement’s real strength continues to lie in grassroots efforts and the passage of legislative policy and referenda.  Its success will be measured not by poll questions, but by the closure of two gaps in education: choice and achievement.

The Friedman survey reinforces the broad support for charters and school choice found in CER’s own 2013 national poll (differences arising largely from demographic weighting methodologies), and shows stable public opinion compared to the previous year.  While Republicans exhibit the most ardent support for charter schools (a +48 point margin compared to a +21 point margin for Democrats), it is clear that education reform has performed the rare feat of transcending partisan politics, bringing together voices from all backgrounds and persuasions.