What the Public Really Thinks of School Choice

This article appeared in the Orange County Register on August 29, 2006.

Phi Delta Kappa, a public‐​school advocacy organization, released its annual education poll last week, claiming once again that American support for school vouchers is low and declining – from 38 percent last year to 36 percent this year.

Don’t believe them.

What the public does not know, and what PDK neglects to mention, is that support for school choice varies dramatically based on how survey questions are phrased. PDK learned that the hard way, watching as the public became favorably disposed toward its original school choice question.

From 1970 to 1991, Phi Delta Kappan magazine periodically asked Americans: “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?”

In 1970, 43 percent of adults nationwide favored a voucher system, while 46 percent opposed it – the rest being undecided. But the public eventually warmed up to the idea. From 1981 on, every time the question was asked, those in favor outnumbered those opposed. By 1991, support had reached 50 percent, and opposition had fallen to 39 percent. That was the last time Phi Delta Kappan asked the question.

But it wasn’t the last time the question was asked. The following year, the Gallup polling organization asked it again, and the public’s reaction was more positive than ever before: 70 percent of respondents said they supported school vouchers, and only 27 percent opposed them.

When PDK next asked the public about vouchers, in 1993, it employed the following newly revised phrasing: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?”

Interestingly, this new wording – which has been in use ever since – no longer mentions that voucher programs already exist in other nations. It also emphasizes that the program would be financed “at public expense” without drawing respondents’ attention to two highly relevant facts: that vouchers save taxpayers money, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld their constitutionality.

A Cato Institute study published in January of this year found that the Washington, D.C., school voucher program saves the district millions of dollars, and would continue to do so if it were expanded to include all children. When Cleveland’s voucher program went before the Supreme Court in 2002, the majority ruled that it permitted “genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious,” and so did not run afoul of the First Amendment.

Not surprisingly, PDK’s revised wording elicits considerably lower support than its original question. On this year’s survey, 36 percent favored the idea, while 60 percent opposed it – a very similar result to last year.

To demonstrate the bias of Phi Delta Kappan’s current phrasing, the pro‐​school choice Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation commissioned its own poll in August 2005, using the similar, but less‐​loaded wording: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?”

A solid 60 percent of Americans surveyed were in favor of such a program, while only 33 percent opposed it.

Another poll stands out as more telling than the rest. In 2004, Gallup preceded its school‐​choice question by asking respondents how much they knew about vouchers, and only then asked them: “From what you know or have heard, do you favor or oppose school vouchers, or do you not know enough to say?” Supporters of school choice easily outnumbered opponents but both groups were dwarfed by the 62 percent who simply did not know enough to decide.

Phi Delta Kappan could do its part to remedy that knowledge gap by returning to the original wording of its question. But we needn’t conduct a poll to know that that isn’t likely to happen. Phi Delta Kappa is an advocacy organization for the public school monopoly, and the last thing a monopolist wants to do is remind people that in other countries, families enjoy real educational choices, and schools have to compete for the privilege of serving them.