State Lawmakers’ Disconnect on K-12 Education

As a new survey shows, they're not on the same page with many of their constituents. There needs to be more direct contact.
September 27, 2016
By Robert C. Enlow  |  Contributor
President and CEO of EdChoice

State legislators oversee billions of dollars in spending, in many cases more than half of it for K-12 education. But how do legislators set their agendas? What sources of information do they rely on? And what do they think about K-12 education?

EdChoice recently released a national survey of nearly 350 state lawmakers -- believed to be the first conducted solely by phone by anyone in 15 years -- that looks in depth at their views on K-12 education in general and the issue of school choice in particular. The survey also asked them how they make decisions and whom they trust for help formulating policies. No matter your stance on educational choice, the survey is a valuable tool for those seeking to understand or influence policymakers at any statehouse.

Quite possibly the biggest finding in our survey was the disconnect between elected officials and those they represent regarding the direction of K-12 education in our states and nation.

EdChoice annually conducts a national survey to gauge public opinion on a number of educational issues. Our 2015 data found that 60 percent of Americans think K-12 education is heading in the wrong direction, while only 32 percent think it's on the right track. Yet according to our new survey, a mere 43 percent of state legislators believe K-12 education is on the wrong track in their states, compared with 49 percent who say it's on the right track.

On issues relating to school choice, 61 percent of lawmakers favor state-funded education savings accounts, an option supported by 62 percent of the general public. Slightly more than half of lawmakers, 52 percent, support school vouchers, and 67 percent support public charter schools. In contrast, 61 percent of the general public support vouchers and 52 percent support charter schools.

How can those who set education policy in each state have such a different view of the system they oversee and fund than those paying for and using it? We believe that the voices of dissatisfied parents and students simply aren't being heard and that there's far more work to be done at the local level to make sure lawmakers understand the needs and views of those they represent. To probe that assertion, we looked deeper into our interviews with state legislators to find out who and what most influence their decision-making processes.

Our survey found that a lawmaker's direct experience is paramount when it comes to setting an agenda, developing legislative priorities and voting on issues. The vast majority of legislators, 85 percent, told us that directly communicating with constituents is of high importance, followed by their own professional experience (77 percent) and personal experience (76 percent).

On the flip side, only 26 percent of the legislators surveyed said that information provided by interest groups is highly important. Just 19 percent pointed to hot issues in the news as very important, and only 13 percent said the same about public-opinion surveys and polls. The results were similar when legislators reported on factors that influence their actual voting.

This may not be the best news for those of us who work at nonprofit think tanks or for journalists, but it's remarkably helpful for anyone trying to figure out how ideas become laws in America's state capitols. Obviously, relationships matter. So do personal stories and community engagement.

The reality for the educational choice movement is that we've spent an awful lot of time proving our success with data and research without directly engaging those who benefit from our work -- parents and students -- and sharing their stories.

Most Americans are not satisfied with the direction of K-12 education in our country, but they're not communicating with the folks who can change it. This is our greatest challenge as we seek to continue expanding schooling options for all families.

We know parents are busy being parents, so school choice supporters and advocacy groups have to be willing to meet them where they are and help them tell their stories. If our data teaches us one thing, it's that families need to connect with their legislators in personal ways beyond the statehouse -- perhaps at the corner coffee shop, a place of worship or even in a school. The more we can help convene those conversations, the more lawmakers will understand how their decisions affect their constituents.

Millions of students across the United States are using school choice as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society. We now know that their stories -- shared with the lawmakers who represent them -- have the potential to open doors for millions more.