Survey Finds Leaders Have Left Public Far Behind In Voucher, Charter Debate


NEW YORK -- While lawmakers and education experts have put charter schools and school vouchers on the map across the country, most of the public has only a vague notion of what these programs are, a national survey by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Agenda has found.

Even in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Arizona and Michigan -- areas where such innovations are underway -- most parents say they know nothing or at best very little about these proposals, which are designed to offer parents alternatives to traditional public schools.

The survey of 1,200 adults, believed to be the most comprehensive one on vouchers and charters to date, also challenges many experts' assumptions about how parents may respond. Many parents would not opt to send their children to a school far away, even if it were better than the local one. Most Americans say they would also not be concerned about allowing parents to use public money, in the form of vouchers, to send their kids to religious schools -- a policy that some experts say blurs the line between church and state.

It's hard to overstate how unfamiliar and confusing these proposals are to most citizens -- parents included, said Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. In focus groups, Public Agenda's moderators had to hand out printed explanations of how vouchers and charter school proposals work. The country simply has to address this gulf in understanding.

Full Steam Ahead

So far, 1,682 charter schools have opened their doors, operating with taxpayer funds but free of control from the local school district. Parents in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Florida are already using vouchers to send their kids to private schools. Bills proposing vouchers or tax credits have been introduced in 40 state legislatures since January. And both concepts are hot election topics.

The study, made possible by a grant from the Charles A. Dana Foundation, posed more than 40 questions on vouchers and charters to 1,200 Americans, plus additional subsamples of parents and community leaders. One woman in a focus group asked whether vouchers were chits that could be used to buy school uniforms. But she was one of the few who even ventured a definition.

Major findings of the study, entitled On Thin Ice: How Advocates and Opponents Could Misread the Public's Views on Vouchers and Charter Schools, include:

  • 63% of American adults say they know nothing or at best very little about vouchers, and even more (81%) say the same about charter schools;
  • 60% of parents of school children in Cleveland and Milwaukee say they know very little or nothing about vouchers and 75% say they need to know more in order to form an opinion;
  • 52% of parents in Arizona and Michigan, which have high numbers of charter schools, say they know very little or nothing about charters and 68% say they need to know more before taking sides;
  • Only somewhat lower percentages of business executives, elected officials and others in a survey of community leaders from across the country say they need to know more about vouchers (42%) and charter schools (54%) before forming an opinion.

Public Agenda asked us to fund this study because of the Dana Foundation's 50-year history supporting public access to information about health and education issues that directly affect the lives of people across this country, said David Mahoney, chairman and CEO of the Dana Foundation. The survey adds valuable knowledge to the discussion of vouchers and charter schools being carried out today on the national and local level.

Modest Proposals

In the survey, Public Agenda provided respondents with a brief explanation of charter schools and vouchers and asked a number of questions exploring the pros and cons of each approach. In many instances, people responded in ways that may surprise some leaders in the school reform debate, although researchers caution that these results are based on limited understanding. Here are key findings:

  • Majorities of adults respond favorably to a brief explanation of charter schools (68%) and vouchers (57%);
  • Most (52%) say that in their area, private schools provide a better education than public ones;
  • But only 11% say that vouchers are a good idea that promise to solve the nation's education problems, while two-thirds (67%) more modestly characterize vouchers as a good idea but they cannot solve the nation's education problems;
  • 40% say that charters would be an overall success in their area, but 27% say they would not make much difference;
  • While many school choice proponents hope parents will be careful shoppers for good academic quality in schools, a sizable minority of parents (40%) would rather send their child to a good school that is conveniently located rather than to a better school that is pretty difficult to get to (54%);
  • Support for vouchers is higher among minorities: 46% of blacks and 41% of Hispanics strongly favor vouchers, compared to 29% of the general public;

For the survey, 1,200 randomly selected adults across the country were interviewed in June, 1999 (the margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points), including 394 parents of school-age children. An additional 208 parents in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Arizona and Michigan were also surveyed, as well as 833 community leaders from across the country. Focus groups were conducted in Elmsford, N.Y.; Dayton, Ohio; Phoenix, Ariz.; Redwood City, Calif.; and Milwaukee, Wis.

An electronic version of the report will be available in a PDF format for free downloading from November 17 through December 2 on Public Agenda Online ( Print copies cost $10, plus $2.50 for shipping and handling, and may be ordered with a form printed from the Web site or by calling (212) 686-6610. The Web site also has highlights of the report and selected results of other polls on vouchers and education topics.

Public Agenda also publishes a citizen discussion guide, Public Schools: Is There a Way to Fix Them?, with the Kettering Foundation that helps explain vouchers, charter schools and other school reform ideas to the non-expert. The guide is in use by the National Issues Forums, a network of discussion groups around the country. Copies cost $5, plus $2.50 for shipping and handling.

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1975 that seeks to raise the level of public discussion about critical policy choices facing the nation. The Charles A. Dana Foundation is a private, philanthropic, nonprofit organization with particular interests in health and education.

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