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Gallup Poll Finds Split on Education Issues in Presidential Election

When potential voters’ decisions were based solely on a “desire to strengthen public schools,” a new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll gives President Obama a November victory over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, by a margin of 49 to 44 percent.

Given the poll’s margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points, the race would be almost too close to call, said William Bushaw, executive director of PDK International and the co-director of the poll, which is being published today.

Broken down by party affiliation, Obama had 88 percent of the vote among Democrats while Romney had the same percentage among Republicans. But 46 percent of Independent voters chose Romney, compared with 41 percent that opted for Obama.

The same Gallup poll predicted dead heats in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, and accurately foretold overwhelming support for Obama in 2008. This year’s poll is based on 1,002 telephone interviews conducted in May and June. The responses are weighted so that the sample is representative of the nation’s adult population.

Rick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., told me he was surprised Obama’s lead over Romney wasn’t larger than 5 percentage points given the “glowing press” for the president’s education initiatives, and he was shocked by the low grades Republican respondents to the poll gave the president’s performance in support of public schools. Only 14 percent of Republicans gave him an A or a B grade compared with 71 percent of Democrats.

Indeed, the finding that significantly more respondents thought it was more important to balance the federal budget (60 percent) than to improve the quality of the education system (38 percent) has to be a concern for the Obama campaign, said Andy Rotherham, who cofounded Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that focuses on improving opportunities for low-income students.

“If that’s really the mood out there, it would have to worry Democratic candidates,” said Rotherham, who was a special assistant for domestic policy during the Clinton administration.

Overall, just 37 percent of the poll’s respondents gave Obama an A or B grade for his performance in support of public schools, down from 41 percent last year and a high of 45 percent in 2009. The Democrats’ reputation as the political party more interested in improving public education continued its steady decade-long climb, with a jump to 50 percent this year from 44 percent in 2008.

The presidential election isn’t the only area where Americans were divided in the poll. There were near-even splits on the issues of school vouchers, whether high schools are producing college-ready graduates, and whether the respondents would give good or bad grades to their neighborhood schools.

Rotherham noted that the results were “all over the map” when it comes to opinions on issues such as school choice, with support for charter schools dropping while more people said they approved of vouchers.

“The last few years there has been so much noise in the education debate, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of confusion out there,” said Rotherham, who writes the Eduwonk blog. “The numbers don’t add up to a coherent poll.”

Rotherham said polls like the Gallup are good at “at probing for big-gut level questions,” such as how people feel about immigration. However, the questions are less useful “for probing on issues where a fair degree of background knowledge is required,” Rotherham said.

On the issue of whether the children of immigrants who entered the country illegally should be eligible for a free public education, school meals, or other benefits, 58 percent of the poll’s respondents were opposed. (The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they are, up through the 12th grade.)

The idea of blocking those students from attending public school doesn’t make much practical sense either in the short term or the long term, said Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association. Eskelsen told me that she actually wondered what the respondents who comprised that 58 percent respondents would prefer for those children to do during the day as an alternative.

“Should they be home alone while their parents are at work?” Eskelsen asked.

If the educational needs of children – regardless of citizenship status – are ignored, “it’s to our detriment, not just theirs,” Eskelsen said. “Certainly, undocumented immigrants don’t have a lot of legal rights. This just happens to be one of them, and it’s because it makes sense.”

Eskelsen said she was heartened by the fact that the 58 percent opposition represents a decline from the 67 percent who opposed providing free education to the children of illegal immigrants back in 1995. (She was also thrilled that the poll found that confidence in the abilities of teachers remained steady at 71 percent for a third consecutive year. I’ll talk more tomorrow about the Gallup poll’s results for teachers, as well as key issues including using standardized tests in teacher evaluations, charter schools, and bullying.)

For 44 years, the poll has opened with the same first question: “What is the biggest problem facing schools in your community?” A decade ago the responses were split among discipline, drugs, and gangs. This year, 35 percent of respondents said a lack of financial support was the leading problem, which is not unexpected given the effects of the economic downturn on local schools.

But that hasn’t dimmed Americans’ optimism as to the future prospects of their own children. Of the poll’s respondents who were parents, just over 90 percent said they “strongly agreed” that their child would graduate high school. And nearly two-thirds of parents polled said they believed their child would find a good job after graduating.

One hallmark of the annual Gallup poll is that respondents consistently give higher ratings to their local schools than they do to public schools nationally, and that held true again this time around. Those perceptions “do defy some of the data we have,” said the poll’s co-director Bushaw, referring to the nation’s graduation rate which hovers around 74 percent. For the most part, that kind of optimism “is a really good trait of Americans,” Bushaw said. The downside is that it can make it difficult for policymakers and educators to build a sense of urgency for reform.

Rather than try and convince people they are misinformed in their perceptions about public schools, something Hess termed an “unpromising slog,” he recommended education advocates try to explain to people what it is that the reformers plan to change, and “why that will help make their particular school, system, or classroom better.”

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