Commentary

Education by Polls

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
This article appeared on National Review online on March 21, 2002.

In the spring 2002 edition of Education Next, Stanford University professor Terry M. Moe accuses the Phi Delta Kappa education association of “cooking the questions” about vouchers in its annual survey to produce an anti-voucher result.

Whether PDK is “framing” the questions raises a different question: Why should opinion polls be used to determine if American schoolchildren should receive school vouchers? Even if PDK is correct that only 34 percent of Americans support vouchers, 34 percent of the 53 million school kids would still mean that there are more than 17 million families that want an alternative to the public schools.

There is always a solution to resolve disputes about what the public wants: Give people the freedom to choose. As long as people are answering the question about vouchers in the abstract, with no immediate impact on their lives regardless of how they answer, we can never possibly know how many people support vouchers.

Many polls simply show that Americans are uninformed about public policy issues. According to a Washington Post survey conducted in February, a month after Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, respondents were read the statement: “Congress passed an education reform bill this year and President Bush has signed it into law.” Forty-four percent said that was true, 16 percent said it was false and 40 percent said they didn’t know.

A May 2000 Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey asked respondents if they knew what the term “school voucher” meant. Forty-four percent of registered voters said they did not. In a 1999 Public Agenda/Charles A. Dana Foundation survey, 63 percent of Americans said they knew very little or nothing at all about school vouchers and how they work. Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup certainly is aware of Americans’ apparent lack of knowledge when it comes to education. About half of respondents in the 2000 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup survey said they had not heard or read about charter schools.

Compounding the unawareness of respondents is that polls fail to include costs along with benefits and don’t present citizens with the hard decisions that will come later. People can tell pollsters that they want decreased class size, higher salaries for teachers, computers in every classroom, and increased funding for education in general because economic reality is optional in polls.

This is why choice is essential. We can’t be sure how many people really support public schools until they are given an option to leave them. We will find out how much people want to reduce class size, put computers in classrooms or increase the salaries of teachers once they have options. Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, some parents will choose schools with smaller classes while others will opt for schools with more computer technology. Still, others will choose schools where teachers are paid more.

What does PDK think about Prof. Moe’s accusations? A spokesman for the organization told the Washington Post that it is “framing” a response to Moe. That is an unfortunate word to use, considering that Moe has accused PDK of “framing” the questions to enhance bias against vouchers. PDK will probably claim that Moe unfairly failed to mention that the reworded question also found 44 percent support for vouchers a few years ago or that the alleged reworded question was actually asked in 1991, not 1993 as Moe wrote. Or PDK may come up with a methodological explanation that most Americans won’t care about.

Here’s one thing PDK won’t say: We are so sure that Americans oppose vouchers, as our polls demonstrate, that we support giving a school voucher to every American child.

Casey J. Lartigue Jr. is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.