Biggest Problem for Public Education? Lack of Funding, Poll Says

Americans believe a lack of financial support is the biggest problem currently facing public schools, according to the 44th annual Phil Delta Kappa International/Gallup poll of public attitudes toward public schools released Wednesday, but they also say that balancing the federal budget is more important than improving the quality of education.
by | August 23, 2012
 

Americans believe a lack of financial support is the biggest problem currently facing public schools, according to the 44th annual Phil Delta Kappa International/Gallup poll of public attitudes toward public schools released Wednesday, but they also say that balancing the federal budget is more important than improving the quality of education.

Funding was by far the most pegged problem with 35 percent of those polled saying it is the biggest obstacle for public schools in their community. The next ranking problem was lack of discipline at 8 percent. At the same time, though, 60 percent said it is more important for the federal government to balance its checkbook over the next five years than improve the quality of public education, which earned 38 percent.

For comparison’s sake, 64 percent said in 1996 that improving public education was the most important task for the federal government, while only 25 percent named balancing the budget. The federal government provides about 10 percent of funding for public schools; the remainder comes from state and local sources. The poll did not inquire about an increase or decrease in state and local investments.

“I think what you’re seeing is that there is a real concern and people are worried about federal deficit reduction and the debt,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization that advocates for education reform, during a panel discussion at the Gallup offices. “It’s more of a gut check than anything else.”

Those numbers don’t necessarily mean Americans don’t believe public education is important. Nearly two-thirds strongly disagreed when presented with the idea that a high school dropout is ready for the world of work. That number dropped to 18 percent when asking about high school graduates. More than 60 percent agreed with requiring students to attend school until age 18—which coincides with a proposal that President Obama presented in his State of the Union address, asking states to mandate that students graduate.

Almost everyone (97 percent) said improving the nation’s urban schools, where many minority and low-income students attend, is important, and 62 percent said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to fund efforts to do so. Nearly 9 in 10 said that closing the achievement gap between highly and poorly achieving students is very or somewhat important. There is less generosity toward children of illegal immigrants: only 41 percent favor providing free education and school lunches to them, although that figure is up from 28 percent in 1995, the last time Gallup asked the question.

Generally, Americans are pleased with the public schools in their immediate vicinity, but are more skeptical of public schools taken as a whole. While 48 percent would give their local schools a grade of A or B, only 19 percent would say the same for public schools nationwide. That trend has been fairly consistent, dating back to 1992.

“The more you know about schools, the more you like them,” said Rick Ginsberg, dean of the Kansas University School of Education. “That’s an interesting takeaway.”

Gallup also gauged the public’s feelings toward various education reform initiatives.

An even 50 percent say the Common Core standards (which 45 states plan to adopt by 2014) will increase the quality of public education, while 40 percent say they will have no effect and 8 percent think they will make education worse. Three-fourths of Americans say they will result in more consistency across schools in education quality.

A few more (52 percent) agree with including standardized test scores in teacher evaluations than don’t (47 percent). Fifty-seven percent believe entrance requirements for college teacher preparation programs should be more rigorous, and two-thirds believe that would result in more effective teachers. Despite strong rhetoric from both sides about the teaching profession, a solid 71 percent of Americans say they have trust and confidence in teachers, same as in 2010 and 2011.

Two-thirds support the concept of charter schools, although that figure declined for the first time since 2008, from 70 percent in 2011. Bill Bushaw, executive director of PDK International, attributed that change to lower support among Democrats, 54 percent of whom approve of charter schools, compared to 80 percent of Republicans.

Meanwhile, 55 percent oppose giving public vouchers for students to attend private schools; however, that number is down from 65 percent opposition in 2011. Seven out of 10 like the idea of parent takeovers, where parents can petition and vote to remove administration and staff at failing schools.

The PDK/Gallup poll is based on surveys of 1,002 Americans, age 18 and older, during May and June 2012.

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