When It Comes to Charter Schools, What Do Americans Really Care About?

A look at the latest Ednext poll convinces me that the charter school movement needs to do one and only one thing to succeed—prove that charters can be effective in the classroom.

Charters need a series of spectacular achievements that prove they can teach Americans across the board. Breakthroughs for the disadvantaged are part of the story, but charters also need to show they can enhance middle class learning. To do that charters need to broaden the population they serve beyond the educationally disadvantaged. As long as charters are for the poor, and only for the poor, they will not transform American education

For three years running Ednext has been asking a nationally representative sample of Americans their opinions about charter schools. Each year the poll asked whether the person surveyed was in favor of, opposed to, or neither favored or opposed charter schools.

Surprisingly, in 2009, 44 percent refused to take a stand on the charter issue, a percentage that differed little from the 42 percent in 2007 and the 41 percent in 2008. Despite the hullabaloo about charters in the media and blogosphere, nothing has changed.

Support for charters remains twice as large as outright opposition.  In 2009, 39 percent said they supported permitting their formation, while only 17 percent opposed. The recent Phi Delta Kappan poll also found a 2-1 positive ratio (64 percent to 33 percent), but they did not provide the respondent the option to say they neither favored or opposed charter schools, thereby giving a misleading indication of the level of charter support.

Those numbers show the charter movement still has legs.  But the fact remains that middle America has yet to take a clear position on charters.  The bulging middle can still be moved decisively in one direction or another.

So what causes opinion to shift on charter schools? Support by a popular president can shift opinion, our poll found, not a big surprise. But just as important is solid information that charter schools are working.

Ednext told one random group of survey participants that a study showed that students learned more in charter schools. (The survey told the truth, as there are such studies, though there are other studies that find the opposite.)

When so informed, public support for charters jumped upward by 14 percentage points.

The policy wonk debate over charter schools has focused too long on matters Americans care little about.  Do charters select the most dutiful students?  Do they teach religion?  Do they collect fees? Do they drain district schools of their tax dollars? Do they cost more—or less—than district schools?

Debates over these questions are lost on most Americans. In the 2008 Ednext poll, random groups of survey participants were given different versions of the survey question on charter schools.  In one version, the survey question began by noting that charters do not teach religion and cannot charge tuition.  In another version of the survey question, survey participants were informed that charters select students at random, if the schools are oversubscribed.  We expected the additional information to boost support for charters, as it addressed concerns raised by many wonks inside the Beltway.  But public opinion in the aggregate hardly budged—though social liberals became more favorable and social conservatives became more opposed.

To move mainstream opinion, only one thing counts—prove charters are effective for all.

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