WASHINGTON – A majority of Americans support President Bush's education priorities and prefer his policies to those of his predecessor, a new poll says.
According to results released Wednesday by the education organization Phi Delta Kappa — a group that promotes "quality education, with particular emphasis on publicly supported education" — 49 percent of respondents say they expect President Bush will do a better job on education than Clinton, while 33 percent said they think he will do worse.
The poll respondents expressed strong backing for the president's education priorities. Increased standardized testing was favored 55 percent to 40 percent. Holding schools accountable for how much students learn was favored by 3 out of 4 respondents, and giving states more flexibility in spending federal funds was favored by 77 percent.
And a Bush-backed initiative to allow public funding for religious groups that want to run after-school programs also garnered wide support, with 62 percent backing the plan.
Despite these numbers, the poll's sponsors emphasized a slight decline in support for publicly funded vouchers to allow parents to send their children to the school of their choice — something President Bush has favored — and claimed a decade-long hike in such support is finally waning.
They said this year's responses indicate a growing confidence in public schools: 72 percent say they would rather reform the current public school system than seek alternatives. However, the group also acknowledged that responses changed when the questions were worded differently.
When surveyed as to how they felt about allowing parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense, 62 percent were opposed, up 6 percent from last year.
However, another question alerted respondents to a proposal to allow parents to choose public, private or church schools for their children where the government would pay all or part of the tuition, even for non-public schools. Only 54 percent of respondents disapproved of this proposal.
And when asked if they would be in favor of government-sponsored vouchers for charter or non-public schools if their children were attending a failing public school, a slight majority, 51 percent, was in favor.
"People read into things differently" depending on how the questions are phrased, said Lowell Rose, the poll's director. He said they respond negatively to spending the "public" money as opposed to spending "government" funds. "People think the public is their money, government is not."
Mary Kayne Heinze of the Center for Education Reform and a voucher supporter agreed that the kinds of questions that get asked often affect the results.
"Pollsters boast of a decline in support for school choice, based on ... misleading questions," she said. "One of those is a devil's bargain, asking whether people would rather reform the existing system or find an alternative to it. Finding alternatives to the status quo or reforming it is not an either-or proposition."
And voucher supporters point to several other polls that suggest an increase in support. One poll by Hunter College of New York City residents in 2000 found that 87 percent of Hispanics approved of vouchers, while 83 percent of blacks and 86 percent of Asians also approved.
And several research studies by Harvard University's Paul Peterson have shown public support for voucher programs in the areas where those programs are in place.
Still, teacher's union officials, who have long been critical of school choice initiatives such as vouchers, said the numbers in the Phi Delta Kappa poll did not surprise them.
"There has been strong public support for public schools all along," and it "doesn't surprise us that the public is not supporting vouchers," said National Education Association spokeswoman Denise Cardinal.
And the union took a wait-and-see approach to the Bush policy initiatives.
"Overall, we've been happy that President Bush has brought so much focus to the issue of education," Cardinal said. "Whether or not these initiatives are going to work for schools is a completely different question ... the jury is still out on what is going to happen with Bush's initiatives."