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Hot-Button Educational Topics Gain Broader Approval

Professor Martin West assesses the findings of the 2019 Education Next poll, showing support for teacher pay, school choice, and vouchers.
Teacher Strike

Teachers, parents and students picket outside City Hall in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, as part of a strike against Los Angeles Unified School District

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Charter schools and school vouchers — ideas once considered provocative in education — are finding broader appeal among Americans, according to the 13th annual Education Next poll.  A report released today about the poll, which surveyed more than 3,000 adults and, for the first time, 415 high school students and their parents, demonstrates a growing bipartisan support for higher teacher pay, school choice, and tax-credit scholarships.

Professor Martin West, a co-author of the report and the editor-in-chief of Education Next, discussed these shifting political supports and more findings from the 2019 EdNext survey.

What was most interesting about the findings?
Debates over education policy in the U.S. are often framed as an either/or: Either you’re for spending more on the current system, or you’re for more fundamental reforms like stronger accountability and expanded school choice. So it is interesting to see that the public hasn’t fallen into that trap. Over the past two years, we’ve seen support for increasing teacher pay and school spending climb to all-time highs, but we have also seen ideas like school vouchers and charter schools gain traction with the public.

Education Next’s annual poll finds broader support for divisive issues:

  • teacher pay
  • school spending
  • vouchers
  • charter schools

Why do you think this shift toward supporting school vouchers and charter schools is happening?
Well, it is the case that the growth in support for school vouchers since the Trump administration took office in 2016 has been greatest among Republicans, as has the rebound in support for charter schools we have seen since 2017. What is surprising is that these ideas haven’t lost ground among Democrats over the same period. That seems to reflect their enduring popularity among black and Hispanic Americans, who make up a large share of Democrats and are as supportive of school choice as ever.

America seems incredibly polarized right now, yet this divide doesn’t seem as great when it comes to education.
There are certainly some education topics where Americans’ views are polarized along party lines. For example, Democrats have a much more positive view of teachers’ unions than Republicans and are much more likely to want to spend more on schools. Republicans are far less likely to support making college tuition free, and the partisan gap in support for charter schools has widened to 21 percentage points.

At the same time, there are other areas where there is greater consensus — or at least where debates don’t break down as clearly along party lines. For example, Republicans are now nearly as supportive of the Common Core standards as are Democrats (this is a recent development), and Democrats are actually slightly more likely to support school vouchers targeted to low-income families. Especially compared to other areas of public policy, there may actually be more opportunities for collaboration across party lines

Why did you choose to survey high school students for the first time?
High school students are on the cusp of becoming voters and entering civic life, and there has been plenty of speculation that the rising generation sees things differently than their parents. So we decided to find out.

Did anything surprise you about the students’ responses?
What was most surprising to me was the number of education issues on which the views of students and their parents don’t differ. There are of course some differences. Students are more likely to support free college, for example, and less likely to support the Common Core and federal testing mandates. But it is hard to characterize their views as more progressive across the board. And while I’m not sure that it is surprising, it was striking to see that only about 40 percent of both students and their parents are very or extremely confident that there are sufficient security measures in place at their high school to prevent a shooting attack. Students are less enthusiastic than their parents about installing metal detectors at school entrances, but more than 80 percent of both groups favor having armed police officers in the school.

Read the press release about the latests Education Next survey.