Poll Finds Little Support for Federal Role in Education

Americans are increasingly uncomfortable with the current federal role in public education, according to a poll released Wednesday.

Just 15 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll said the federal government – as opposed to state governments or local school boards – should have the greatest role in deciding what is taught in public schools.

Further, ratings for President Barack Obama’s handling of education policy were also down: 27 percent gave him either an “A” or a “B,” as compared to 41 percent who gave him those grades in 2011. His support remained high among Democrats, with 61 percent giving him an A or B, but dropped precipitously among Republicans: none gave him an A, and just 3 percent gave him a B.

The Gallup Group and Phi Delta Kappa, an international professional group for teachers and other educators, conducted the telephone poll of about 1,000 Americans in May and June. It was the 46th year of the poll.  

Much of the opposition stemmed from the Common Core standards and the federal government’s role in implementing them.

Sixty percent of respondents opposed the standards, including 62 percent of parents of children in public school and 76 percent of Republicans.

“It’s pretty apparent that Common Core has become a polarizing term,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said on a call with press Tuesday previewing the poll.

Among those opposed, 62 percent said the fact that “the federal government initiated the Common Core State Standards” was either a very or somewhat important factor in their opposition. Further, 68 percent cited the fact that “the Common Core State Standards will result in a national curriculum and national tests” as a very or somewhat important reason for their opposition.

The nonprofit Council of Chief State School Officers group came up with standards, a set of benchmarks of what students should know at each grade level in reading and math as opposed to a set curriculum.

The federal government did contribute funding to two testing consortia to develop the standardized tests children in many states will take. The Education Department has made the adoption of what it calls “college- and career-ready standards” a requirement for waivers of accountability standards under the No Child Left Behind education law (PL 107-110) or as a way to boost applications for Race to the Top grants.

“The rush to implement No Child Left Behind waiver requirements,” which require adoption of the standards, and, often, teacher evaluations based at least in part on students’ test scores, “has led the public to connect the Common Core with somewhat a federal overreach into public education,” Holliday said.

Common Core supporters, battling opposition from both conservative activist groups and teachers’ unions, are now trying to rally support from higher education leaders, former Republican governors and the business community. Three states – Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina – have dropped out of the Common Core since the start of the year, and litigation is pending in Louisiana.

Despite the opposition to the federal work with the Common Core, more respondents cited teachers’ opposition (76 percent) and limitations on teachers’ discretion in the classroom (77 percent) as very or somewhat important factors for their opposition.

Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, said the struggle between high standards and teacher autonomy is not a new one.

“One of the main messages here is that the American education system is one that has struggled for probably now close to two centuries on finding some balance between a national ethos and standards that would apply for all our students, against the equally compelling notion that decisions are sometimes better made by teachers in their classrooms and not by centralized decisions,” he said on the media call.

Charter School Myths

Although the Gallup poll found broad support for charter schools – from 70 percent of respondents who heard an explanation that the schools are exempt from some regulations, and from 63 percent who did not receive that explanation – those polled held many inaccurate beliefs about the schools.

Only half of respondents knew that charter schools are public schools, though that is an improvement from 2006, when just 39 percent knew they were public.

Majorities of respondents also inaccurately believed that charter schools can charge tuition (57 percent) and that they can select students on the basis of ability (68 percent). Charter schools do not charge tuition, and those with more interested students than available seats must hold lotteries to fill slots.

Despite widespread support for charter schools, respondents did not similarly support vouchers, which use public money to help children in low-performing schools attend private schools. Just 37 percent backed vouchers. Republicans were the only group to support that proposal, and only by a four-percentage-point margin.

GOP education leaders have proposed funneling federal money that goes to low-income schools – commonly known as Title I funds – to states to be used to support voucher programs.