Public Right on Choice, Wrong on Standards, But Always Well Intentioned

Today the good folks at the journal Education Next released their annual survey of education opinion. What follows is a quick summary of many of the things the pollsters found, followed by a little commentary about the national-standards results.  (Adam Schaeffer, I have it on good authority, will be flogging the tax credit and voucher findings in an upcoming post.) Bottom line: The public usually has the right inclinations, but gets some answers wrong as a result.

One note: As is always the case with polls – but I won’t go into great detail with Education Next’s questions – remember that question wording can have a sizable impact on results.

So what did Education Next find?

  • Almost everybody reports paying at least some attention to education issues
  • 79 percent of Americans would grade the nation’s public schools no better than a “C”
  • 54 percent of Americans, and 43 percent of parents, would grade their communities’ public schools no better than a “C”
  • Even when told how much their district spends per pupil, 46 percent of respondents think funding should increase. But that’s down from 59 percent when the current expenditure isn’t given
  • Pluralities of Americans favor charter schooling and government-funded private-school choice (without mention of the sometimes toxic word “voucher”), and a close majority supports tax-credit-based choice   
  • A huge majority, even after having been given the average teacher salary, thinks teachers should get paid more or about the same as they currently do
  • A plurality thinks teachers should pay 20 percent of the cost of their health-care and pension benefits
  • Large pluralities – and for one question a majority – support judging and rewarding teachers based on performance, as well as easing credentialing and tenure rules
  • The public is about evenly split on whether teachers’ unions are good or bad for their districts
  • Big majorities support federal testing demands (without mention of the often-toxic No Child Left Behind Act) as well as states adopting the “same set” of standards and tests (without mention of federal incentives to do so)
  • A plurality of Americans oppose taking income into account when assigning students to schools
  • Only 16 percent of respondents think local taxes for their district should decrease

All of these results demonstrate good reflexes by the public. They know, for instance, that overall the public schools are performing poorly, but they are a little happier with the districts they often chose when selecting homes. They want to spend more money on schooling because education is generally a good thing, but that drops when they are told how much is actually being spent (a slippery figure few hard-working Americans have time to pin down themselves). They recognize the need for choice, something they benefit from in almost every other facet of their lives. They believe in judging and rewarding people based on their performance. They oppose forcing physical integration – in this case based on income – on students and communities. And they even, reasonably, want all states to have the same academic standards.

About that last point: Intuitively, it seems to make sense. Why should kids in Mississippi be asked to learn less than those in Massachusetts? If I didn’t get paid to analyze education policy – if I had to do other work for 40-plus hours a week – I, too, would probably support national standards because I wouldn’t have time to look at the evidence, or cogitate over the politics behind such a fair sounding proposal. But I do analyze education policy full time, and I know that (1) there is little evidence supporting calls for national standards; (2) many states have adopted national standards mainly in pursuit of federal money; (3) even if you can get initially high standards, they’ll be dumbed-down by politics; and (4) states can perhaps be standardized, but unique, individual students never can be.

Of course, the good-intentions problem is not unique to education. The huge opportunity costs – among other disincentives – that keep members of the public from being able to sufficiently analyze complicated political issues is a major problem in all public policy matters. That’s why good intentions – which the public demonstrates in spades in this poll – can often lead to bad outcomes. But we cannot blame the public for that. We must, instead, inform the public as best we can.