School Vouchers

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It's back to school time, and today's lesson is on education reform. At least that's what many education activists are hoping. The Bush administration firmly supports vouchers (or what some advocates term “school choice�) — a variety of tax subsidies and rebates that would enable parents to put tax dollars normally allocated to their local public education institutions toward payment for private school tuition. Voucher proponents say this free-market model would force substandard public schools to improve so they can compete with private schools.

On the other side of the debate, teachers' unions and education advocacy groups argue that vouchers will instead lead to an inferior education for children who are left behind in public schools, and ultimately to the demise of the public school system. In May, the House roundly rejected two major voucher bills, but as new proposals spring up, advocates on both sides continue to lobby around the issue.

Can You Repeat the Question?

Recent Gallup polls have shown that with the complicated issue of school vouchers, public opinion varies considerably depending on how questions are posed. There's a reason proponents of vouchers have substituted the words “school choice� for “school vouchers� when discussing their proposals — it increases support. When the question is framed in terms of giving parents choices, options or control, support shoots up; when the word “voucher� is used or the issue is framed in terms of “public expense,� support drops. Either way, support is expressed by a minority.

In the first two examples below, from annual polls taken each summer and released in August by Gallup for the educational society Phi Delta Kappa, the question was asked in two ways — one much shorter than the other — eliciting significantly different responses. The first question frames the issue as one that would involve “public expense.� The second question phrases the policy as one for which “the government would pay.� The second question also includes “church-supported� schools in the list of alternatives. Not surprisingly, support rose in response to the second phrasing.

The third and fourth questions below, asked in January 2001, show that when alternative schools are called “religious,� support is higher; when they're described simply as “private,� support is much lower. The third question also included the words “option� and “of your choice,� implying flexibility. As a result, positive response to the third question was 14 percentage points higher than to the fourth.

IT DEPENDS ON THE QUESTION

Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?

FAVOR OPPOSE
2000 39% 56%
1993 24% 74%

A proposal has been made that would allow parents to send their school-age children to any public, private or church-related school they choose. For those parents choosing non-public schools, the government would pay all or part of the tuition. Would you favor or oppose this proposal in your state?

FAVOR OPPOSE
2000 45% 52%
1993 45% 54%

Would you vote for or against a system giving parents the option of using government-funded school vouchers to pay for tuition at the public, private or religious school of your choice?

FAVOR OPPOSE
Jan. 2001 62% 36%

Would you vote for or against a system giving parents government-funded school vouchers to pay for tuition at a private school?

FAVOR OPPOSE
Jan. 2001 48% 47%

Source: Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Gallup poll. The nationally representative surveys included more than 1,000 adults, 18 and older.

Note: Numbers do not sum to 100 since not all answers are shown.

Learning Our Lessons

Two 1999 polls examining the issue in terms of race found that support is markedly higher among blacks and Hispanics than the general public. In a nationally representative poll of 1,200 adults taken in June 1999 by Public Agenda, the results show especially high support, which can be attributed to the inclusion of the words “certificate� as another way to describe “voucher,� and “parochial� in addition to “private� school.

The second poll was conducted in May 1999 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a national, nonprofit institution researching public policy issues of special interest to minorities. The poll, which surveyed 1,678 Americans, also shows higher support among blacks (60 percent) than among whites (52 percent). Interestingly, this poll included public schools among its choices, unlike the Public Agenda poll. Otherwise, the two questions were phrased in similar ways, with key phrases driving support up: the implication that full tuition could be covered by such a plan; the wording “if they decide to,� implying that parents could choose not to participate and the suggestion that parents are “getting� money from the government rather than “paying� for such programs through taxes.

IT DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ASK

Most minorities support school voucher plans.

How much do you favor or oppose the following idea? Parents are given a voucher or certificate by the government to pay for all or part of tuition if they decide to send their child to a private or parochial school.

STRONGLY/SOMEWHAT FAVOR
General public 57%
Blacks 68%
Hispanics 65%
Source: Public Agenda, 6/99

Would you support a voucher system where parents would get money from the government to send their children to the public, private or parochial school of their choice?

YES
Total black 60%
Blacks 18-25 71%
Blacks 26-35 76%
Blacks 36-50 67%
Blacks 51-64 49%
Blacks 65+ 42%
Black Liberal 56%
Black Moderate 58%
Black Secular Conservative 61%
Black Christian Conservative 68%
Blacks with children 71%
Blacks without children 50%
Source: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 5/99

Weighted Grades

In two March 2001 surveys, Harris Interactive examined how political affiliation affects opinions on vouchers. These polls were conducted the same month President Bush's major education initiative advanced in the Senate and was proposed in the House. The timeliness of the poll may have impacted the answers and weighed in favor of vouchers. However the survey also used the wording “so-called school vouchers� and specified that the plan would only pay “part of the cost� of a private education, both of which may have weighted response against vouchers. Either way, the polls show major differences in opinion according to political persuasion.

POLI SCI CLASS

Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to favor school vouchers.

Do you favor or oppose President Bush's proposals for public school education?

FAVOR
Total 67%
Republican 83%
Democrat 55%
Independent 67%
With children in public school 63%
Source: Harris Interactive, March 14, 2001

In general, do you favor or oppose the so-called school vouchers where parents can use part of the cost of public school education to pay part of the cost of sending their children to private school?

FAVOR
Total 44%
Republican 62%
Democrat 31%
Independent 38%
Source: Harris Interactive, March 28, 2001

THE BOTTOM LINE

  • Most Americans oppose the ideal of public money going toward private schools. However, support for vouchers increases when the proposal is framed as one in which the government “givesâ€? or “paysâ€? parents.
  • “School choiceâ€? garners more support than “vouchers.â€? Parents ultimately want to feel they control their children's education and that their child is afforded “options.â€? Americans are more open to the idea of a voucher system that allows parents to do what they choose.
  • Freedom of religion and the desire to infuse religion into children's lives mean that “religiousâ€? schools, “parochialâ€? schools and “church-supportedâ€? schools trump “privateâ€? schools. “Privateâ€? seems to smack of elitism, whereas “parochialâ€? conjures up faith and community.

WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOU

  • The preference for “school choiceâ€? over “voucherâ€? demonstrates that consumers relish the opportunity to make their own choices and be provided with options. In industries ranging from health care to travel to financial services, marketers should consider framing products and services in terms of “choiceâ€? to make consumers feel in control.
  • In an era where “choiceâ€? can seem alternately overwhelming, limited or nonexistent, consumers need to be presented with clearly differentiated and understandable options. Preferably, these options put the decision-making process in their hands.
  • Education frequently tops Americans' lists of national concerns. The support for vouchers shows that Americans are interested in reforming the education system and testing alternatives — and mixing the lines between private and public in the process. Now could be a good time to show what your company is doing to foster better quality education in this country. Whether it's pro bono work, philanthropic efforts, research support or scholarship programs.
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