Mixed Signals on Education

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Voters' top concern - cited in many surveys about the Presidential election - is scarcely a federal issue at all: the local schoolhouse. School districts, after all, receive only about 7 percent of their funds from Washington and they guard local control fiercely. So why do four out of five Americans tell pollsters that a very important factor in voting for a Presidential candidate is his position on improving K-to-12?

Perhaps they are looking for national leadership. Education is an issue that absorbs many public anxieties about such things as values, race, crime, taxes, and jobs in an economy that is unforgiving of young people lacking academic skills. And most employers and college professors say in surveys that high school graduates aren't prepared to succeed in jobs or college, a view that contrasts with a rosier picture described by both parents and teachers. At the same time, international test scores in math and science indicate that American 12th-graders lag behind their peers in most industrialized nations.

Yet the United States spends more on public education than most countries, and school taxes have shot up since the 1970s. Much of the increased funding goes to special-education programs that, while important, don't reach most students. Many schools are in disrepair and teachers' salaries haven't budged much in 30 years, after accounting for inflation.

Public confidence in education has been declining since the 1970s. In 1999, one in four Americans told Gallup that they have "very little or no" confidence in the schools, and this percentage holds true across rural, urban, and suburban communities. What's a little confusing is that, initially, most people say their local schools are doing a good job. But their praise quickly turns to criticism under further questioning. Many people say schools need higher academic standards and better discipline, but there is a lot of ambivalence about whether schools need more money and whether it would be well spent.

This is a difficult issue for candidates at every level, especially for those who develop education proposals around public opinion surveys. That's because surveys aren't reliable when people haven't yet focused on an issue and give off-the-cuff responses. Education is currently one of those issues - largely because the public debate on school reform has been dominated by experts talking edu-speak. Polls, for example, have shown low but increasing support for publicly funded vouchers, which can be used to offset private school tuition, as well as for charter schools, which operate independently within public systems. But a 1999 Public Agenda study found that most people don't have a clue about how vouchers or charters would work.

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