Aque­s­tion of bias

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

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.

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