What Parents Think About Their Public Schools

If one judged public opinion by conventional public discourse, one would soon conclude that parents in the United States are neatly divided between devotees of district-operated schools and choiceniks determined to avoid them.  But Americans are a good deal more practical than that.  They are willing to send their children to whatever school they think best serves their children’s needs.  Even though 87% of parents with school-age children have sent a child to a public school, more than a quarter have made use of an alternative type of school: 14% have had a child in a private school, 9% a charter school and 8 % have homeschooled their children.

The totals add up to more than 100% simply because many families are making use of more than one type of school.  My colleagues, Michael Henderson and Martin West, and I discovered all of this when we, as part of the 2014 Education Next (Ednext) poll, asked members of a representative sample of the U.S. population who had school-age children living with them what kinds of schools those children had attended as well as their opinions on many other education-related matters.

Many parents would like even more choice of school than they currently have. No less than 56% favor a school voucher that would “give families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools, instead, with government helping to pay the tuition.”  Only 32% opposed the idea.  In other words, two- thirds of all parents, including those who have never made use of a private school, are not opposed to the idea of giving families a choice of attending private school instead of public school.

Parents are even more supportive of charter schools and of tax credits that would pay for “scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools”:  Only 29% and 25% of parents say they are opposed to these options for their fellow parents.

It is true that a much higher percentage of parents (51%) express opposition to a proposal that would “use government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who would choose to attend private schools.” It seems that many parents don’t like the idea of government support going to just low-income families; if vouchers are to be made available, they should be for everyone. Indeed 56% of parents favor a universal voucher option, while only 50% of the public is so inclined.

The responses of parents to most other items in the survey do not differ much from the responses of the general public.  However, parents (58%) are more likely than the public (47%) to give the schools in their community an A or a B, and they are more likely than the public at large to give the schools one of these two top grades for the “specific task of attending to the needs of students from low-income families (49% to 36%).”

Parents (70%) are more likely than the public (60%) to favor higher spending on education.  If told current expenditure levels in their community, however, that gap narrows to the point of statistical insignificance.  Along the same lines, parents (53%) are also more likely than the public (46%) to think money should be spent on reducing class size rather than increasing teacher salaries or buying new books and technologies–unless they are told the relative cost of each policy.  Parents (61%) are less likely than the public (68%) to favor standards in reading and math that would be used to hold schools accountable.

On a few items, parents differ from the general public by almost exactly 5 percentage points.  By this margin, parents are more likely to give teachers in their local schools a higher evaluation, and less likely to want to compensate math and science teachers at a higher level, and more likely to favor teacher tenure.

All differences between parents and non-parents are understated in these figures, as parents constitute 22% of the general public.  The Education Next survey was administered in May and June of 2014 by Knowledge Networks under the direction of Michael B. Henderson, Martin R. West and Paul E. Peterson.  For further details on the survey, see Henderson, Peterson and West, “No Common Opinion on the Common Core: Also teacher grades, school choices, and other findings from the 2014 EdNext poll.”  For all items in the survey, the responses of the public, parents, teachers, African Americans and Hispanic adults are posted at www.educationnext.org/edfacts

– Paul E. Peterson


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