There’s no denying political climate change. The past 18 months have seen an enormous swing in the Washington power balance, a shift that has heightened the polarization that has characterized our public life for more than a decade now. How has this divisive political climate influenced public opinion on education policy and reform? And how much, if at all, has the new president swayed the public’s views?
The 2017 Education Next survey, conducted in May and June of this year, offers us an opportunity to explore these questions and many more. With this year’s survey, the 11th annual poll of a representative sample of the American public, EdNext examines current attitudes toward major issues in K–12 education and compares the results with those of prior years. They also break down responses by political party and, for whites, by level of education. These analyses allow us to see whether changes have been concentrated in any specific political or demographic group.
The sample of more than 4,200 respondents, including oversamples of parents and teachers, also gave researchers the chance to experiment with some of the survey questions in order to tease out nuances in public opinion. For a variety of questions, they divided respondents randomly into two (or more) groups and asked each group a slightly different version of the same question. For example, they told one group about President Donald J. Trump’s position on an issue while the other group was not given this information. By comparing the responses of the two groups, they were able to estimate the “Trump effect” on public thinking. Since EdNext performed this same experiment during the first two years of the Obama administration, they are able to compare the Trump impact with the Obama one.
The report covers 10 main topics. Some of the key findings are:
- School Choice. Public support for charter schools has fallen by 12 percentage points, with similar drops evident among both self-described Republicans and self-described Democrats. Meanwhile, opposition to school vouchers and tax credits to fund private-school scholarships has declined.
- Common Core. Support for using the same academic standards across the states has risen since 2016—as long as the “brand name” of Common Core is not mentioned. When the Common Core name is stated, the level of support remains essentially the same as it was one year ago, but when the question simply asks about standards “that are the same across the states,” public support rises by 5 percentage points over what was observed last year.
- Federalism. Compared with 2015, the public prefers a smaller role in education for the federal government and a larger role for local governments in three policy areas: setting standards, identifying failing schools, and fixing failing school. However, a clear plurality continue to prefer that state governments play the predominant role in these areas.
- Teacher policies. The public is showing an increased resistance to change when it comes to policies affecting teachers. The percentages favoring merit pay, an end to teacher tenure, and increases in teacher salaries are all down about 5 percentage points. In each case, however, a plurality continue to support reform.
- Trump effect. Half of the respondents were told of Trump’s position on four issues—Common Core, charter schools, tax credits, and merit pay. The other half were asked the same question without mention of the president. In general, the effect of being told the president’s position was to boost support among Republicans and reduce it among Democrats. The overall impact, however, was roughly nil.
- Immigration and English-only instruction. Two thirds of the public prefer that students whose native tongue is not English be immersed in English-only classrooms. That percentage remains the same when the students are identified specifically as immigrants. Among whites, 75% of those without a university degree prefer English-only classrooms, compared to 60% of those holding a degree. The public is equally divided as to whether school districts should receive extra federal assistance if they have a sizable percentage of immigrant students.
- Technology. Forty-four percent of the respondents think the effects would be positive if students spent more time on computers at school, while 35% think the effect would be negative.
- Religious afterschool student clubs. The general public is more favorable toward allowing Muslim students to form afterschool clubs than it was in 2008. At that time, 27% supported such clubs, 23% opposed them, and 50% took a neutral position. In 2017, those percentages are 45% support, 27% oppose, and 28% neutral.
- Parents’ aspirations for their children’s higher education. Two thirds of the public would have their child pursue a four-year university degree, while only 22% would choose a two-year associate’s degree at a community college, and 11% would choose neither. These percentages do not change significantly when respondents receive information about both the costs and the earnings associated with each degree. However, the cost-and-earnings information shifts the share of Hispanic respondents preferring the four-year degree upward to levels comparable to those among whites. Meanwhile, 75% of Democrats not provided information would prefer their child to pursue a four-year degree, as compared to 57% of Republicans. This partisan difference disappears when respondents receive information about the costs and benefits of the bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. When informed, the percentage preferring the four-year degree is 66% for Democrats and Republicans alike.
- Varying views by level of education. Among white respondents, 64% of those with a university degree say their local schools deserve a “grade” of A or B, while only 51% of those without that degree rate their local schools that highly. Respondents’ views also varied with their level of education on other issues, including school spending, teacher salaries, merit pay, and school vouchers.