The just released PDK survey of U. S. adults reveals an upward shift in public support for vouchers of 10 percentage points over the past four years, with 8 of those percentage points gained since 2015. Meanwhile, voucher opposition fell by 18 percentage points over this same four-year time period. Although this finding is not reported by PDK in this year’s analysis of its findings, it emerges sharp and clear if one takes a close look at earlier PDK poll results.
PDK asked a nationally representative sample of the American public the following question: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” The question is worded in a way that discourages support for school vouchers, since it emphasizes choice at “public expense.” Still, the particular phrasing of a question is less important for tracking opinion over time than the use of the same exact wording each time the question is asked.
Fortunately, PDK asked exactly the same question in its 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017 surveys. A look at old PDK reports reveals that voucher support declined between 2011 and 2013, but since that time the trend has completely reversed itself and then some. Opposition to “allowing parents to choose a private school at public expense” fell from 70% in 2013 to 57% two years later down to 52% today, while those favoring choice climbed from 29% in 2013 to 39% in 2017.
PDK shows results for Democrats, Republicans and Independents for two of these years–2015 and 2017. The biggest change in opinion over the two-year period has been among Democrats. Their level of support leaped from 16% to 31%. For those who said they were Independents, the shift upward was from 29% to 42%. Surprisingly, the one political group that has not changed its opinion about choosing private schools at “public expense” are Republicans, who split evenly between 46% in support, 46% in opposition in both years.
The unreported PDK numbers echo the findings released by Martin West, Michael Henderson, Sam Barrows and me as part of the 2017 Education Next poll released on August 15. We found that opposition to vouchers declined by 7 percentage points between 2016 and 2017 when we asked respondents whether they favored giving “all families with children in public schools a wider choice by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with the government helping to pay the tuition.” Unlike the question in the PDK survey, our question fetched a clear plurality of support for vouchers among the public–45% in favor, 37% opposed. But, like PDK, we found that the balance of opinion shifted toward vouchers between 2017 and 2016, when those favorable had barely edged out those opposed by 45% to 44%.
Among Republicans, the percentage favoring vouchers shifted upward from 41% to 54%. Among Democrats voucher support slid from 49% to 40%. These results differ from PDK which identified a greater pro-voucher shift among Independents and Democrats. The different wordings of the two questions could account for the differences in these results.
The Education Next poll asked about vouchers in three other ways as well. In all cases any shift in opinion we detected was pro-voucher. The PDK poll shows the same thing, though it took some detective work to discover what Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other voucher proponents may regard as the most important finding from the PDK poll.
— Paul E. Peterson
Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Senior Editor of Education Next.