Polls Seem to Differ on Charters, But In Fact They Agree

President Obama is supporting charters: Is he following public opinion or changing it?

One can get some insights by looking at two polls: the Education Next poll (Ednext) and the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll (PDK), released while most Americans were lying on the beach last month. (I am one of those responsible for the Ednext poll, and also a co-author of this article which interprets some of the poll’s results.)

At first glance the PDK poll appears to yield results that differ sharply from those released by Ednext.

According to PDK, 64 percent of all Americans “favor the idea of charters.” But according to Ednext, only 39 percent “support the formation of charter schools.”

That is a massive 25 percentage point difference—way outside the statistical margin of error. Is PDK hopelessly off-base? Or is Ednext?

Oddly, the findings are exactly the opposite of what you might expect. PDK, as a journal, has never extolled the virtues of charters, while Ednext, in its current issue, runs a story by Peter Meyer about a charter success story in Albany, New York. So poll results are exactly the opposite of what some kind of bias theory would predict.

So what has happened? The main difference is that Ednext, unlike PDK, gives the person being surveyed the option of saying they “neither support or oppose” charters. 44 percent of the respondents choose that option. Of the remainder, more than twice as many of those surveyed by Ednext favored charters as opposed them (39% to 17%).

In other words, Ednext shows that approximately two thirds of those who have clear opinions on charters favor them,  and only one third oppose them.

PDK also shows that support for charters is twice the size of the opposition (64 percent to 33 percent.)

What the PDK poll doesn’t show, however, is how large is the percentage of people who can easily be swayed in one direction or another.

But PDK does hint that a lot of opinion about charters may not be firmly fixed. Its results this year confirm findings released by Ednext two years ago that the public has only vague ideas about what a charter school actually is.

Meanwhile, Ednext shows that the public can easily be swayed by Obama’s backing of charter schools—as well as by any research evidence that shows charters to be effective at educating school children.

Neither poll is “right” or “wrong.” Instead, they are both more revealing when their results are juxtaposed. Together they show charters are making strong headway with the public, but they have yet to close the deal. But Obama could be just that deal maker, if he lifts the issue to the top of his educational agenda.

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