A Poll-ish Joke About School Vouchers

In its 38th annual poll of the public’s attitudes toward education released yesterday, Phi Delta Kappan magazine makes the following statements:

  • “Since 1991, the PDK/Gallup polls have approached [the school choice] issue with a question that measures approval of the voucher concept – ‘allowing parents and students to choose a private school to attend at public expense.’”
  • “Support for vouchers started at 24% in 1993…”
  • “Support for vouchers is declining and stands in the mid-30% range.”

This representation of their own survey results on the subject is incomplete, disingenuous, misleading, and, in one instance, factually incorrect.

PDK actually started asking the American public about vouchers back in 1970, with a rather more informative question:

In some nations, the government allots a certain amount of money for each child for his or her education. The parents can then send the child to any public, parochial, or private school they choose. This is called the “voucher system.” Would you like to see such an idea adopted in this country?

Response to this question was initially somewhat unfavorable, but those answering favorably began outnumbering those opposed in 1981, and that pattern was never reversed. The last time PDK ever asked this question, in 1991, 50 percent of respondents were in favor while only 39 percent were opposed.

I guess PDK’s editors just didn’t happen to have those back issues of their magazine handy when writing up this year’s report – which is somewhat odd given that they are now all available on-line

That’s the misleading and disingenuous part. The factually incorrect part is that they confuse the starting year of their own newly revised question (see the bullet points above), suggesting that it was introduced in both 1991 and 1993. In reality, it was first administered in 1993. As noted above, they were still asking their original voucher question – the one whose existence they now fail to acknowledge – through 1991.

I like to think – in the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart” – that their guilty conscience over sweeping their earlier voucher question and its positive results under the rug caused them to slip up on their chronology for the new question.

Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering, if you change just a handful of words in PDK’s current voucher question, the results are almost exactly reversed. The public’s response goes from being 60 percent opposed (PDK/Gallup 2006) to 60 percent in favor (Harris, 2005). A hearty thanks to the Friedman Foundation for pointing that out.

As a final historical note on the original voucher question wording, it was asked one last time, to my knowledge, in 1992, though not for Phi Delta Kappan. The response in that year was that 70 percent of Americans favored school vouchers when informed that they already exist in other countries.

How surprised should we be that an advocacy organization for the public school monopoly is reluctant to tell Americans about the competition and parental choice that exist in other nations?