Poll says voters back public education

Democrats For Public Education (DPE) released the results of a national voter survey conducted by Harstad Strategic Research that shows voters back public education in large numbers.

Roughly 2/3 of Americans agree with traditionally Democratic positions when it comes to education – especially when it comes to overwhelming support for neighborhood schools and teachers.

Overall, 82% of those voters able to rate their local teachers believe them to be excellent, very good, or good. Moreover, solid majorities (61%) back more funding for public schools – including 79% of Democrats, 57% of Independents, and even 45% of Republicans.

The survey validates that those who castigate public schools and teachers are simply out-of-step and out-of-touch with the American people, parents and voters. It’s also troubling that teachers are being laid off and public school funding is being slashed, while additional tax breaks are handed out to corporations and the uber-wealthy. Respondents believe that precious taxpayer dollars should go toward funding education, rather than corporate profits, CEOs or advertising budgets.

“Schools should be about learning, not profit,” said DPE Co-Chair Ted Strickland, former Governor of Ohio. “This poll backs up that we must support our neighborhood public schools. That means backing up teachers and listening to the parents and educators who know what’s best for kids in the classroom. It means bringing forth engaging curriculum that focuses on critical-thinking and problem-solving, rather than this obsession with standardized testing and educators being forced to teach to the test.”

“These poll results clearly show that, contrary to what some naysayers push, the American people are proud of their public schools. And they’re proud of public school teachers,” said DPE Co-Chair Denise Juneau, Montana State Superintendent. “As Democrats For Public Education, we believe we should be lifting up and championing both – by investing time, energy and resources.”

“I’ve seen an awful lot of polling through the years, and any politician or elected official would love to have the favorability ratings enjoyed by local public schools and teachers in this survey,” said DPE President Steve Rosenthal. “The facts are on our side, and we are beyond pleased with these findings. This information could – and should – be used as a roadmap for those who want to speak out loud and clear in support of neighborhood schools and public education.”

Launched just last month, DPE is a 527 formed to show that Democrats remain united around a core set of principles to ensure public education thrives for generations to come. Already, elected officials, party leaders and activists at all levels of government and from communities in 43 states have signed up as supporters at www.DemocratsForPublicEducation.com.

Below is a memo detailing core results from the national telephone survey of more than 1200 individuals polled from September 11th-16th.


To: Interested Democratic Candidates and Elected Officials
From: Paul Harstad
Date: September 22, 2014
Re: Findings and Talking Points from a National Voter Survey on Public Schools

Harstad Strategic Research conducted a national telephone survey among 1202 active voters on behalf of Democrats for Public Education from September 11 to 16, 2014. The survey focused upon a series of education issues. Set forth below are the key survey findings and recommended talking points on various education issues.


1. Americans are widely supportive of public schools and their teachers.

Solid majorities back more funding for public schools and teacher pay, and overwhelming majorities rate local public schools and their teachers highly.

  • A 61% majority of voters believe that state funding for public schools should be increased – including 79% of Democrats, 57% of Independents and even 45% of Republicans.
  • And 56% of voters with an opinion believe pay for public school teachers falls short of what it should be.
  • Fully 82% of voters able to rate their local public school teachers rate them as excellent, very good, or good – versus just 8% who rate them as marginal or poor. Among public school parents, 93% rate public school teachers as excellent, very good, or good.
  • Speaking of public school parents, 84% give their children’s schools an A (53%) or B (31%) grade. Ten percent offer a C, and 3% say D or F. While there is certainly room for improvement, the median grade would in effect be an A-minus.

2. Teachers are not seen as the problem.

When given four broad reasons for why public schools might not be performing better, virtually no one puts the blame on “bad teachers.”

40% Lack of parental involvement and support

29% Inadequate funding and resources for public schools

18% The effects of poverty, hardship and problems kids bring to school

3% Bad teachers
(including 4% of Republicans and 3% of conservatives)

9% Don’t know

It is telling that more than half of those making a choice select either inadequate funding or the effects of poverty and hardship on students. The Republicans and conservatives tend to focus more on the lack of parental involvement, while Democrats focus heavily upon inadequate funding and kids’ poverty and problems.

3. Roughly 2/3rd of Americans agree with traditionally Democratic values on education.

The survey tested a dozen statements representing the more progressive, inclusive and enlightened approach to public education, asking whether voters agree or disagree with each one. Basically 2/3rd of Americans agree with the following sentiments and core talking points, in remarkably non-partisan reactions:

  • Neighborhood schools should be our top priority because they educate a huge majority of our kids;
  • Teachers should be held accountable by principals, supervisors and parents – not by standardized bubble tests;
  • Taxpayer money should pay for children’s education – not for corporate profits, CEO bonuses, or advertising budgets;
  • Educators should be teaching critical thinking and problem-solving – not just teaching to the standardized bubble test;
  • We must let teachers do what they know best – teach our kids and prepare them for college and careers. Politicians and corporations should get out of the way;
  • Everyone has a favorite teacher who made a real difference in their lives – and we need to support and promote those kinds of classrooms.

4. A majority of voters see too much emphasis on standardized testing.

Fully 57% of both voters and public school parents with an opinion believe there is too much emphasis on state standardized testing of students, compared to only 12% who say there is not enough emphasis and 31% who believe there is the right amount of emphasis.

The leading critiques tested against over-reliance on standardized testing (based in part upon regression analysis) include:

  • Rather than teaching critical thinking and problem-solving, schools are now being forced to spend up to 30% of their school year preparing for or administering standardized tests. (This critique is especially potent among mothers).
  • Focusing on standardized tests does not prepare our students for college, careers, or competing in the global economy.

Voters rate ‘accountability’ as the most important value for public schools, and believe teachers, principals, administrators, elected officials, parents and students all need to be held accountable. However, it is clear that the public believes reliance on standardized testing is used in a disproportionate manner. Adequate measurement should include a mixture of proper school funding, workable class sizes, more teacher training, respectable teacher pay, more parental involvement, broad-based teacher evaluations, etc.

While teachers have to be held accountable, so too do principals, administrators, legislators, parents and students.

5. Americans find more common ground with the Democratic agenda for improving public education.

The survey tested 15 specific proposals for improving public schools, asking how much each one will help teachers and schools better educate students (on a 0-10 scale).

Without exception, all eight of improvements aligned with Democratic or progressive principles test higher than the seven aligned with Republican or conservative principles. Even voters who identify themselves as Republicans or conservatives rate the Democratic-aligned solutions higher than the conservative solutions.

All of the progressive reforms elicit solid majority endorsement (ranging from 60% to 80% buy-in), while none of the conservative reforms come remotely close to a majority (ranging from 40% to 10% buy-in). Note the steep drop-off from the last progressive reform (increase teacher pay) to the top conservative reform (test scores for teacher evaluations).

It is also noteworthy that the two most credible improvements focus directly on the classroom.In general, we would tend to recommend that Democratic candidates pick-and-choose their preferred solutions among the top shaded five above, given local realities, their own personal priorities, and a bias toward the classroom.

6. Only 27% of Americans express negative feelings toward ‘teacher tenure,’ while most endorse due process and place a much greater emphasis on improving teacher effectiveness.

Reactions to questions and elements of teacher tenure demonstrate that Americans are not particularly concerned with teacher tenure, and instead support efforts that give teachers the tools and skills they need to improve teacher effectiveness (through collaboration, mentoring, survival skills, more training and prep time).

Answers related to teacher tenure also demonstrate a strong desire for broader accountability that is not solely fixated on tests but instead focuses on support from parents, administrators and legislators. For instance, it is irresponsible for officeholders to reduce school funding while giving more tax breaks to big corporations and the super-rich, while laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, and while forcing educators to teach to the test rather than teaching critical thinking or problem-solving.

7. While charter schools are nominally popular, there is confusion about them and a mixed verdict on the performance of for-profit charters.

Four key findings summarize Americans’ current attitudes toward charters and for-profit charter schools.

  1. “Charter schools” are relatively popular: 43% are positive, 17% are negative, and 40% are either neutral or don’t know.
  2. Only 46% of voters presume that charter schools are public schools,while 36% think they are private or religious schools, and 15% don’t know.
  3. Overall, 41% think “for-profit charter schools” perform better than neighborhood public schools, while 42% think they perform the same (34%) or worse (8%).
  4. Out of a dozen attributes tested comparing pro-profit charters versus neighborhood schools, the top predictor of voters’ above relative appraisal from regression analysis is“making sure students have a solid base in reading, writing and math” (41% neighborhood better, 44% for-profit charters better). The ‘basics’ continue to be a preeminent cornerstone.

And out of half a dozen critiques of for-profit charters, the three leading concerns about them are:

  • Many are run by out-of-state corporations that put profits ahead of kids;
  • Due to weak accountability and oversight, some have hired convicted felons or people who have been fired from other schools;
  • They often cherry-pick their students and turn down students they don’t want who require extra costs – like disadvantaged or disabled students.

At the same time, part of the contrast versus for-profit charters lies in the need for affirmative more than negative messaging. For instance, earlier in the survey fully 68% of voters buy into the affirmative statement that “neighborhood schools that educate a huge majority of our kids should be our top priority,” while just 39% buy into the critique that “more charter schools drain much-needed resources from our neighborhood schools – which are the backbone of the American education system.”

Besides the importance of accountability, opportunity and creativity are also seen by parents and voters as important values in schools. Indeed, there is a very clear desire that children are being educated in ways that will prepare them for the opportunities inherent in college and careers. And it is equally clear that voters connect creativity and critical problem-solving to those opportunities.

As such, public school reforms that encourage creativity and critical problem-solving in neighborhood schools can create an advantageous contrast. Neighborhood schools are looking to promote skills and opportunities for children in the real world, while for-profit charter schools operate like assembly lines with their preoccupation on standardized tests.

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