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New report: Less support for charter schools but more for vouchers. Why?

A lot of folks are trying to figure out the drop in public support for charter schools revealed in the 11th annual edition of a well-regarded poll that examines current attitudes toward major issues in K–12 education. The poll by Education Next, a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, goes deep and looks at results by political party.

In its exploration of the charter school question, Education Next found Republicans and Democrats were less enthused this year, as this chart from the report illustrates.

Here is what the report says about charters:

Thirty-nine percent of respondents say they support “the formation of charter schools,” which is down steeply from 51% in 2016, but still a bit higher than the 36% who express opposition this year. (Roughly one in four respondents takes no position on charter schools, perhaps reflecting the fact that many Americans remain unfamiliar with them.) Support has also fallen within the minority community—from 46% to 37% among blacks, and from 44% to 39% among Hispanics.

One might expect that this year’s decline in support for charters would be concentrated among Democrats, given the position taken by Trump, but that turns out not to be so. Support falls by 13 percentage points among Republicans (from 60% to 47%) and by 11 percentage points among Democrats (from 45% to 34%), leaving the partisan gap on the issue largely unchanged.

Public awareness of struggling charters within their communities and the wariness of the NAACP may have contributed to the slip in support. Nearly a year ago, the NAACP endorsed a moratorium on expanding charter schools until there is greater transparency and accountability. There was such an outcry about the moratorium that the civil rights organization created a task force to hold hearings around the country on how charters were faring.

Last month, after listening to proponents and opponents in seven cities, the task force advised continued caution around charters, concluding in this final report:

There are indeed some excellent charter schools – and where they provide high-quality education to all students without exclusions, they make a positive contribution. However, we also heard about the many poor charter schools that fail to serve children with the greatest needs, offer suboptimal education, and engage in financial mismanagement, sometimes pocketing public money to make a profit for private citizens. Further, we heard about the results of a loss of neighborhood schools when they are closed in order to create charters – the long bus rides for young children, the inability of parents to be engaged in schools far from their communities, and the loss of civil rights protections for children who cannot get into a school near their home and, in effect, have no real choice.

Parents and politicians have now had more than two decades to watch charter schools. Innovations in education are often met with enthusiasm and a bit of blind faith, which occurred in Georgia with charter schools and online instruction. I believe disappointing outcomes have diminished the initial zeal for both.

Yes, there are some strong charters in Georgia, just as there are strong traditional public schools. However, charters face the same challenges in high poverty communities that every school confronts. Operating as a charter doesn't automatically produce wondrous results, and that may be better understood now.

Here are some other interesting findings from the report: (It's a fascinating report with a lot of information so please read the entire thing if you can.)

Private-school choice: A year ago, 29% of the public opposed tax credit–funded scholarships that allow low-income students to attend private schools — an approach that is now used by 16 states and rumored to be under consideration by the Trump administration. That percentage has fallen to just 24%. Tax credits continue to command the highest level of support among all choice proposals. Fifty-four percent of respondents favor the idea, a level not noticeably different from last year.

Vouchers: Opposition to vouchers has declined. When asked whether they favor universal vouchers—giving vouchers to “all families” in order to give parents a “wider choice”—only 37% of the general public express opposition, down from 44% a year ago. Supporters, at 45%, now have a clear plurality. Opposition to vouchers for low-income parents to give them “wider choice” also fell, from 48% to 41%, while the level of support ticked upward from 37% to 41%.

Common Core: From 2013 through 2016, public support for the Common Core steadily eroded, from 65% to 42%. Meanwhile, opposition more than tripled, from 13% to 42%. Yet this year that downward trend has suddenly come to a halt (Figure 4). At 41%, the level of support shows no real change from a year ago. The percentage opposed, at 38%, also tracks closely to 2016. The escalating trend of opinion against Common Core may have run its course.

Testing: Support for testing and school accountability enjoys broad support not only across party lines, but also among parents and, in some instances, among teachers.

Nearly two thirds of the public favor the federal government’s requirement that all students be tested in math and reading each year in 3rd through 8th grade and at least once in high school, and only 24% oppose the policy. Republican support (62%) and Democratic support (66%) are both strong. Parents of school-age children are just as supportive (63%) as the public at large. Teachers are an exception, however: a slight majority, 52%, oppose the annual testing requirement. Teacher opinion more closely resembles that of the broader public on the issue of allowing parents to opt out of state testing of students. Fifty-eight percent of teachers oppose allowing parents to opt out, which is close to the shares among the public (63%) and parents (55%).

Teacher salaries: When asked whether teacher salaries should be raised, no fewer than 61% of Americans are in favor. But when told what teachers currently earn, the level of support drops to 36%.





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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.