No question, parents flock to school choice



The American Federation of Teachers released a new survey this week, “Public School Parents and the Promise of Public Education,” that claims many things. But most important to school choice supporters, it says the vast majority of parents prefer traditional public schools and are opposed to educational options.

The quality of any survey is heavily dependent upon the methodology applied and, of course, the questions asked. AFT and the firm that did its survey, Hart Research Associates, condensed their findings in a short memo that’s worth reading.

The memo suggests the survey question about vouchers may be misleading participants by directing them along a predetermined path. For example, participants were asked to choose the better of two education approaches. Take a look at the language below (from page 6):

Approach A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. We need to make the investments needed to ensure all schools provide safe conditions, an enriching curriculum, support for students’ social and emotional development, and effective teachers.

Approach B) We should open more public charter schools and provide more vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense. Children will receive the best education if we give families the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.

Not surprisingly, 77 percent of survey participants chose Approach A.

There are a few glaring problems.

  • Approach A is an “investment” while Approach B is an “expense.”
  • Approach A language includes words like “access to good,” “safe conditions,” “enriching curriculum,” “support for students” and “effective teachers.” Who is against any of that? None of those phrases appear in Approach B.
  • The survey presents a false dichotomy. Approach A is all about “quality” while Approach B is all about “choice.” It is never presented to the survey participant that choice can lead to quality. Choice and quality are not mutually exclusive.

By comparison, take a look at the recent survey of school moms by The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. As compared to AFT, we can certainly place the Friedman Foundation at the opposite end of the school choice spectrum. But its survey approach and methodology were decidedly more restrained.

The Friedman survey asked an open-ended question on charter schools and vouchers without defining the terms. Support for charter schools was 45 percent with 19 percent opposed. Support for vouchers was 43 percent with 22 percent opposed.

When the terms were defined, support grew – to 66 percent for vouchers (with 26 percent opposed) and 63 percent for charters (with 25 percent opposed).

There is a good reason for the different results between the Friedman and AFT surveys: the language.

As but one example, note how each group defines vouchers.

Friedman Foundation (page 57):

“A school voucher system allows parents the option of sending their child to the school of their choice, whether that school is public or private, including both religious and non-religious schools. If this policy were adopted, tax dollars currently allocated to a school district would be allocated to parents in the form of a “school voucher” to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s school.”

American Federation of Teachers (page 6):

“We should open more public charter schools and provide more vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense. Children will receive the best education if we give families the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.”

Two very different descriptions. Two very different results. Which one is more straightforward to you?

Much like political polls, opinion surveys can surely be shaded one way or the other. In campaigns, though, ultimately the voters have their say. In education, parents are doing the same. And the national trend is headed entirely in one direction: Parents are increasingly choosing options beyond the traditional neighborhood public school.

Today, 21 states and D.C. offer private choice options with an estimated enrollment of more than 1.1 million students. There are also more than 2 million students in charter schools, more than 2 million in online K-12 classes and another 1.5 million being homeschooled.

Florida has seen even more change. Last year, the state saw a 27 percent growth in tax credit scholarships for low-income kids, to more than 50,000. The number is likely to top 60,000 this fall. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) Meanwhile, some 26,000 students used McKay scholarships for students with disabilities; more than 150,000 participated in Florida Virtual School; and more than 200,000 enrolled in Florida charter schools. All totaled, in 2011-12, the state reports that 1.5 million PreK-12 students attended something other than their district school.

This is not to argue against the value of public opinion surveys, especially those that bring genuine scientific rigor. But parents are also voting every day in the educational arena. As they are given more options – both public and private – they take advantage of them. There’s just no question about it.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.