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New PDK/Gallup Public Education Survey Results More Helpful in Context

Update, 8/22: Intercepts blogger Mike Antonucci makes some incisive observations about the need for better-informed voters while asserting that the PDK/Gallup results are not that significant, noting he “wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot poll.”

It’s late August and back-to-school season, which means it’s once again time for the new Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) / Gallup “poll of the public’s attitude toward public schools.” Right up front, let it be known that this won’t be as Pretty Darn Klever” as my commentary on last year’s results, but a few things of interest need to be pointed out from the results.

The headline and the first question featured is “What do you think are the biggest problems that the public schools of your community must deal with?” Far and away the #1 answer at 35 percent was “lack of financial support.” Coming in a distant fourth was “overcrowded schools” at 5 percent.

More interesting is what’s missing on the school finance topic from the poll of 1,000 American adults. Just a few weeks ago the Fordham Institute released its own national survey (with a nearly identical sample size). The question of what approach local school districts should take to meet existing budget challenges yielded a remarkable response:

48 percent opted for “Cut costs by dramatically changing how it does business,” while only 11 percent chose “Rely on tax increases”

Another interesting question would include giving respondents the actual per-pupil spending amount of their local district before asking them about whether more funding is needed. The 2011 Education Next/PEPG survey used this approach and found that support for additional K-12 revenues “fell from 59 percent to 46 percent” when those surveyed were aware of the real figures.

Yet as Checker Finn points out today, there is at least one other qualifying finding in the new PDK/Gallup survey:

…when it comes to Uncle Sam solving [the problem of “lack of financial resources”‘, a whopping majority (60 percent) says that balancing the federal budget is more urgent than improving the education system.

Finn’s post also hits some other highlights, including the telling observation that 44 percent of respondents supported expansive private school choice even though the survey folks “relentlessly phrase their voucher question in the most off-putting way possible.” (Nor did they seem to distinguish the well-known policy of tax credits in any question, for which the Education Next/PEPG team found a broad base of support.)

One last tidbit. The Education Next/PEPG survey gave respondents a neutral (“neither support nor oppose”) option. Their respondents broke 43-18 in favor of charter schools. But it’s interesting to see which way the neutrals split when forced to choose. In the latest PDK/Gallup results, the numbers are 66-30 pro-charter, down slightly from 70-27 the year before.

Given that the two polls found remarkably similar results when asking Americans to grade the public schools nationally and in their community, it would be very difficult to say we are seeing two different sets of results based on the sample of respondents. Rather, it’s more a matter of taking observations from other credible sources to fill in the gaps and help tell the story a little more clearly and precisely.

Generally, survey results like these go a lot further toward stirring the pot of debate than resolving contentious issues. But putting one major survey in the context of a couple others at least should lead to a little bit more sound judgment.