Public Approves of Higher Taxes for Schools, but Insists on Fairness in How the Money Is Spent; Support Weak for Vouchers, Unclear for Charter Schools

A new survey on education released today shows that Americans think education is so important they are willing to pay substantially higher taxes for specific improvements. Although parents generally are enthusiastic about their children's schools, they believe other schools in their community aren't as good and schools across the nation are even worse. There is strong support across the board for many improvements—from enforcing academic standards to paying teachers more and fixing up rundown schools. But a majority opposes one of the most controversial reform proposals, vouchers. However, the survey indicates vouchers are a volatile issue, with opinions subject to change. And on another controversial reform, charter schools, Americans are even less certain about their opinion. Reports based on the National Public Radio/Kaiser Family Foundation/Kennedy School of Government survey on education will be aired on NPR news programs beginning Tuesday, September 7, 1999. Key findings include:

Spending and Reform

• The survey identified strong public support for educational reforms, even if it means paying higher taxes. Three out of four Americans say they would be willing to have their taxes raised by at least $200 a year to pay for specific measures to improve community public schools; more than half (55%) say they would be willing to have their taxes raised by $500. Only 16% say they would NOT pay even an additional $100 for this purpose.

• When asked whether states should spend the same amount of money on all students, more than four out of five Americans (83%) support equalizing school funding even if it means taking funding from wealthy school districts and giving it to poor districts. Furthermore, nearly 70% think wealthy districts' spending should be "capped so that poor districts are not left behind"; fewer than three in ten (27%) think wealthy school districts should be able to spend as much as they want.

• Americans are divided on school vouchers: 54% oppose vouchers and 42% favor them. However, about half change their position—in both directions—when confronted with arguments against their initial position. This indicates that the debate over vouchers is still an open one. Moreover, 66% of parents of children in public schools say they would not take advantage of a voucher program, even if it paid all the tuition for them to send their child to a different school.

• On public charter schools, another controversial reform, more Americans favor them than oppose them, but 63% say they haven't heard enough about charter schools to have an opinion about them.

• The public is split over what the underlying purpose of schools should be, but teaching the basics seems to have an edge over other activities. In one question, about half (52%) think schools have gotten too far away from basics, although 41% say schools need to teach students about a broader range of subjects than they used to because the world is more complex today. In another question, asking which is a more important role for schools, 52% choose giving students academic skills and other knowledge to prepare them for a job or college over developing students' character so they can make responsible decisions as adults (34%)—but 13% volunteer "both" as an answer to the question.

Education Seen As a Top National Issue

• The public thinks education is one of the top problems facing the country today. While crime is cited as the No. 1 national problem, education and drugs round out the top three. Non-parents (14%) are just as likely as parents (13%) to cite education as their primary concern.

"My School Is OK, But Yours Isn't"

• Parents give high marks to their children's schools (71% rate them A or B) but are less enthusiastic about schools in their community (60% rate them A or B) and think even less about the nation's schools overall (only 23% rate them A or B; 18% give them a D or F). This means that although parents may have underrated the nation's schools, they clearly tended to overrate their own children's schools and their community's schools as well; not everyone can be above average.

• Parents think the nation's public schools have more serious problems than schools in their local community. The majority of parents named six concerns as major problems facing schools in the nation. But none of these was identified by a majority of parents as major problems in their own community's schools:

• Undisciplined and disruptive students (71% say it's major problem in schools nationwide; 40% say it's a major problem in their community's schools)
• Lack of parental involvement (68% nationwide; 43% community)
• Overcrowded classrooms (64% nationwide; 44% community)
• Violence and school safety (63% nationwide; 31% community)
• Students' use of alcohol and drugs (62% nationwide; 44% community)
• Inequality in funding among school districts (54% nationwide; 36% community)

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