What does the public think about public education? Not much at all, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The headline coming out of it is: “Fewer than half of all Americans want to increase the number of charter schools or school voucher programs that provide government funding for students to attend private or religious schools instead of their public school.”
No doubt the Internet will light up over that finding, but little attention will be paid to how the composition of the survey’s respondents illustrates why it’s so hard to find common ground on education policy.
They were asked, “Are you the parent or guardian of a child under 18 years of age, or not?” Only 34 percent responded “yes.” Of those that answered “yes,” 19 percent had no children currently in grades K-12.
That means about three-quarters of the total number of respondents have no kids in K-12 schools.
They don’t have first-hand knowledge. How is their second-hand knowledge?
Fifty-eight percent admitted they knew “only a little” or “nothing at all” about charter schools, and 66 percent said the same about school voucher programs. Nonetheless, two-thirds of them were able to offer an opinion about the quality of charter and private schools.
The political leanings of the respondents were 47% Democrat, 35% Republican. That seems to be a significant difference, though not as noteworthy as the fact that 48% of those surveyed were not employed.
Education policy is subject to the usual partisan differences, but is additionally complicated because schools are run for the students who attend them, their parents, and the people who work there – the so-called stakeholders.
The electorate, however, is overwhelmingly made up of non-stakeholders. These are people who have no children in school and – the evidence clearly suggests – no real interest or solid knowledge about what goes on there.
The key to getting your preferred education policy enacted is to persuade this vast group to vote your way, which is why we get campaigns and legislative battles that are short on empirical evidence and long on selective factoids.
There is no easy solution to this problem. Both sides of the school reform debate have spent 25 years trying to educate the electorate about charter schools, but 28 percent say they know nothing at all about them. Yet they still have opinions and vote based on them.
They are uninterested, but we can’t say they are disinterested. They provide the bulk of the roughly $630 billion we spend on public education each year. That guarantees them a desk, even if they haven’t done their homework.