“Public Support Climbs for . . . Charter Schools and Universal Vouchers”

Because of causes I can safely guess, national polling last year showed weaker support for various types of school choice than had been the case.  This included charter schools (which emphatically are public schools) along with policies that enable generally lower-income parents to send their son or daughter to an independent school if it looks to be a strong fit for their child.

My “safely guessing” has something to do with shiploads of ridiculous and simply wrong things candidates and others on the left, especially teacher union officials, said and wrote about parental choice during the 2016 election cycle.   But according to a major and just-released survey, much more encouraging numbers are returning.  Perhaps the decidedly better and more accurate things office holders and others on the right have been saying and writing about parental choice are having something to do with the reversal.

Education Next is a terrific quarterly journal sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It’s twelfth annual public opinion survey was administered on-line in May and involved a “representative sample of 4,601 adults,” with an oversampling of parents, teachers, African Americans, and those who identify themselves as Hispanic.  Findings will be officially released in September, though the current version available on the Internet is quite detailed, with a headline reading: “Public Support Climbs for Teacher Pay, School Expenditures, Charter Schools, and Universal Vouchers.”

A listing of topics covered in the survey is impressive given the heated, often red-hot controversies surrounding them: “Common Core, Testing, and Accountability”; “School Quality”; “Racial and Ethnic Disparities: School Discipline and Affirmative Action”; “Immigration”; “School Spending”; “Teacher Salaries”; and “School Choice” among others.

One of the “others” is “Agency Fees,” which is shorthand for whether public employees, be they union members or not, can be forced by unions to pay agency fees; dollars which routinely wind up supporting political candidates and causes that legions of union members (and non-members) don’t support.  In what was wonderful and overdue news in June, a month after the survey was administered, the Supreme Court ruled “no,” neither members nor non-members can be forced to pay agency fees in its critical Janus decision.

What did respondents think about this matter in May?  “No less than 56% of the general public and 56% of public-school teachers oppose laws that require ‘all teachers’ to pay fees for union representation even if they choose not to join the union.”

Permit me to repeat the most interesting portion of that last line: “No less than 56% . . . of public school teachers oppose laws that require ‘all teachers’ to pay fees for union representation . . . .”  I’m very pleased my American Experiment colleagues Kim Crockett, Catrin Thorman, and others have been working and plowing hard in this vineyard, seeking to afford teachers their full First Amendment rights.  Looks like they’ve won.

For the rest of this blog, let me focus on the survey’s school choice results.  I would urge those who are interested in the other topics covered, as well as a more detailed look at questions regarding choice and educational freedom, to go to www.EducationNext.org.   In the interests of precision, the following passages are direct quotes from the Education Next report.  A 54% majority of the public supports “wider choice” for public-school parents by “allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition,” a 9-percentage-point increase over a year ago.  Opposition to vouchers has fallen from 37% to 31%.

  • Backing among Republicans for universal vouchers has bumped upward by 10 percentage points, to 64%, while among Democrats the rise has been 7 percentage points, to 47%. No significant differences among whites, blacks, or Hispanics are observed.
  • Opinion holds steady, however, when respondents are asked about “wider choice” for [only] “low income families. Just 43 percent express a favorable view, the same as in 2017.  African Americans (56%) and Hispanics (62%) respondents are considerably more supportive of vouchers for low-income families than are whites (35%)

A clarifying note: It would be a mistake to interpret these results as signaling coldness or worse towards “low-income families,” which are disproportionately composed of people of color.  Are some respondents of that mind?  Of course.  But prior research, as well as current observations, suggest it’s much more accurate to view these results as signs that middle-income Americans want their kids to take advantage of vouchers, too.  

  • After a substantial decline in support [for charter schools] in 2017, public backing for charter schools climbed by 5 percentage point this past year, to 44%, with only 35% opposed. The uptick is concentrated almost entirely among Republicans, widening the divide between Republicans and Democrats on this issue.

A historical note: Charter schools first became law in Minnesota, in 1991, with DFL legislators and citizens leading the way.  Which is another reason why it’s crazed and nasty to view charter schools as retrograde, right-wing institutions, as many on the left contend daily.  To his large credit, obviously, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson supported and signed the path-breaking legislation.    

The Harvard report is written by a team of four, including Prof. Paul Peterson, who leads the Program on Education Policy and Governance.  No less impressively, he grew up in Montevideo, just down Trunk Highway 7 in Chippewa County.