Education Standards Don't Always Earn a Passing Grade in Polls

Morton Kondracke is correct (Pennsylvania Avenue, Sept. 11) in saying that most polls show strong support for national education testing. But hardly any polls address the arguments that opponents have been making about testing. When they do, the verdict is less one-sided.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal question from March, for example, put more emphasis on the traditional state and local control of schools and found the public split.

Forty-nine percent agreed with the following statement: “The federal government should be involved in establishing a national test, because we should have common national standards of what students should be achieving in reading and math, while we also need to hold schools more accountable for giving students the education they need.”

But 47 percent chose: “The federal government should not be involved in establishing a national test, because this will give the federal government too much power to create a one-size-fits-all approach to education, when education should be under state and local control.”

The NBC News/WSJ survey also found that 47 percent believed local school boards should have the most responsibility for improving the quality of public schools, 25 percent said this should be primarily a state responsibility, and 13 percent said it should be a federal one.

The public rejects one argument made by some of the opponents of testing. Only 20 percent in the 1997 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll said there is too much testing. About half (48 percent) said the current emphasis on testing is appropriate; 28 percent said there is not enough.

Free to Choose

Growing support for school choice and lessening of opposition to home schooling are two indicators of deepening dissatisfaction with the country’s public schools.

In a late July poll for the Democratic Leadership Council, Penn, Schoen & Berland asked people about improving the country’s education system. Thirty-nine percent said we must spend more money and resources. But 53 percent said the education system would only improve through more choice and competition among schools.

In the NBC News/WSJ poll, 73 percent favored allowing parents to send their children to any public school in their local school district. Forty-five percent favored providing tax-funded vouchers or tax deductions to parents who send their children to private schools; 50 percent were opposed.

The results were similar for “providing tax- funded vouchers or tax deductions to parents who send their children to private or religious schools.” Forty seven percent were in favor, 50 percent opposed.

Since 1993, Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa have been asking people whether they favor or oppose “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” In 1993, 74 percent were opposed and only 24 percent were in favor. When that question was repeated in the 1997 survey, 52 percent were opposed, 44 percent in favor.

The Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll shows non-whites more supportive of school choice than whites. This mirrors the findings of a March-April poll conducted for the Joint Center for Political Studies. In it, 57 percent of blacks, but only 48 percent of whites, supported a voucher system in which parents would get money from the government to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice.

Another question in the Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll asks about a proposal that has been made that would allow parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school they choose. The question specified that for parents choosing non-public schools, the government would pay all or part of the tuition. The responses in 1994 were 45 percent in favor and 54 percent opposed. By 1997, 49 percent favored the idea and 48 percent opposed it.

Home for School

In the only question I’ve seen of its kind, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asked people in March how many of them home-schooled their children. Home schooling was described as “keeping your child out of school and teaching the child at home.” Six percent of parents with children in K-12 said they had done this, 91 percent had not.

Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa began asking about home schooling in 1985. In that year, 16 percent of the public thought it was a good thing and 73 percent a bad thing. By 1997, the number saying that home schooling was a good thing had nearly doubled to 36 percent.

Parental Privilege

Seventy-one percent in the 1997 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll rejected the argument that the public schools are infringing on the rights of parents to direct their children’s education; 24 percent said they were. A majority of non-public school parents said they were infringing on those rights, and 44 percent disagreed.

A Right or a Privilege?

When CBS News asked people in 1978 whether a college education was necessary to get ahead in life, 49 percent said it was, 47 percent said it was not. In a new poll conducted in August, three-quarters said it was necessary, while 23 percent disagreed.

In another question, 86 percent agreed that “every capable person has a right to receive an education through college, even if he or she cannot afford it.” Just 12 percent disagreed.

When asked if the federal government has a responsibility to make sure every qualified person gets a college education, even if he or she cannot afford it, 48 percent said this was a government responsibility, while 47 percent disagreed.

Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for
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