Aquestion of bias
Anew survey released Aug. 22 on school choice will make news, but there likely won’t be anything new. That’s because every year Phi Delta Kappa International, an advocacy organization that is ideologically in line with the teachers’ unions, releases its poll on the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” it claims to find low public support for vouchers and other programs encouraging school choice.
Advance word on the report doesn’t raise our expectations. According to Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow a the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the survey uses more of its “pro-establishment phrasing” to get responses to align with its anti-choice bias. For instance, the 2004 survey asked respondents “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” Forty-two percent favored PDK’s characterization of school choice, while 54 percent opposed. The report’s 2005 poll, which used the same question, found 38 percent in favor with 57 percent opposed, seemingly giving weight to the idea that school choice and voucher programs are unpopular and becoming more so. Look to see that trend continue with this year’s report.
But hold on. The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation on Educational Choice began conducting a study in 2004 in which it slightly reworded PDK’s question to more accurately reflect the program school-choice advocates support. Its question asked: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, [note the word change] to attend using public funds?” In 2004, the Friedman Foundation study found that 63 percent favored its wording of the question, with 36 percent being opposed. Last year, using the same question, it found 60 percent in favor, with 33 percent opposed. In both years, the Friedman Foundation also asked its respondents the PDK-worded question and reached almost identical percentages of those in favor (2004, 41 percent; 2005, 37 percent) and those opposed (2004, 56 percent; 2005, 55 percent) as the PDK survey. Thus, the Friedman Foundation survey produced a 20-point swing in favor of school choice simply by adding the phrase “any school, public or private.”
Given the dramatic results, it might be wise to consider the Friedman Foundation an outlier. However, similarly conducted polls in Florida and Utah in recent years found equally dramatic swings depending on how the question is phrased. Other polls conducted more generally between 2001 and 2004 also found a majority of Americans support school choice when the question accurately reflects a choice, such as between public, private or parochial schools.
The truth is school choice and voucher programs are popular with the public, no matter what PDK tells us every year. In 2005 alone, 38 states introduced school choice bills; 11 states saw progress on school choice bills in either legislative chamber; and six states either passed a school-choice program or expanded a pre-existing one. Meanwhile, the District’s voucher program experience, begun in 2004, is nothing less than a resounding success.
All of which makes this year’s PDK/Gallup survey the obvious outlier. Keep that in mind when the press trumpets PDK’s findings as somehow conclusive.