updated 8/24/2004 9:41:33 AM ET 2004-08-24T13:41:33

The public is a bit fickle about its schools, with mixed or even contradictory views about testing, vouchers and other education topics, a poll finds.

At least two in three adults, for example, oppose the way test scores in reading and math are used to judge school performance under federal law. Yet almost as many people said schools give the right emphasis to tests or don’t emphasize them enough, the poll found.

Conducted by the Gallup Organization and Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional society for educators, the annual poll on school attitudes focused on No Child Left Behind.

The law, which took effect in 2002, has come to dominate the national debate on education by requiring progress among all groups of students and penalizing many schools that fall short.

No Child Left Behind views
Slightly more than half of those polled said the law will improve student achievement in their schools. But people had other views about some of the law’s underpinnings.

A majority, in one example, said the test scores of disabled children should not be counted in determining whether a school made enough progress to satisfy the federal law. The law generally requires children in special education to be counted just like other students.

Also, most of those polled opposed reporting test scores for all major groups of students, such as poor, minority, disabled or limited-English students. Yet it is those scores that reveal the achievement gap — the same problem deemed important by most of those polled.

Overall, 68 percent of people said they knew nothing or very little about the 2.5-year-old education law, and 55 percent said they didn’t know enough to form an opinion of it. Those numbers of uninformed people, although high, did drop since 2003.

“If they have all these concerns about the act, and many don’t even know about the act, then why do they think it will lead to achievement?” said Jack Jennings, director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. “I think it’s because people believe if you focus this much national attention on the problem, we will do better. And I think they’re right.”

Voucher issue
Private-school vouchers continue to lack majority support, according to the authors of the poll’s summary. Asked if they favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense, 54 percent opposed the idea; 42 favored it.

But the wording of the question artificially lowered support for school choice, according to the pro-voucher Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. The foundation hired research firm Wirthlin Worldwide for a study coinciding with the Phi Delta Kappa poll. That study found that 63 percent of people supported vouchers when the question was about letting students and parents “choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds.”

The PDK/Gallup poll leaders invited debate, encouraging readers to “do their own take on the data, to measure the authors’ interpretations of the data against their own, and to draw their own conclusions.” The poll’s aim is to advance discussion of the issues, they said.

The results are based on a random phone survey of 1,003 adults in May and June. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Among other findings of the poll:

  • 47 percent of people said they would give public schools in their community an A or a B. Only 26 percent said they would give those grades to the nation’s schools.
  • 21 percent said lack of money is the biggest problem their schools face. That was the most common answer, with lack of school discipline and school overcrowding coming in next.
  • 42 percent said the Democratic Party is more interested than the Republican Party in improving public education; 35 percent gave the edge to the Republican Party, which has gained ground on that issue since 1996, when 27 percent said the GOP was more interested.

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