Education poll: Georgians less likely to prefer public school

A new educational poll shows how Georgia sentiments vary from those in the rest of the nation on issues like the value of racial diversity and the importance of school choice.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa International poll has been probing American attitudes about schools for nearly half a century, and for the first time has focused specifically on Georgia, allowing a comparison of views here against those of the nation as a whole.

The results indicate people in this state consider racial (and economic) diversity in public schools more important than the rest of the nation does, yet Georgians would be less likely to seek a public school for their child if they could afford a nearby private school instead. Respondents here were also more likely than the rest of the nation to favor government funding of private schools in the form of tuition vouchers.

The survey is by a global network of education professionals that has been polling the nation annually about public schools since 1969. The organization publishes Kappan magazine, where the full results are being published.

Polls are imperfect, but the national findings on at least one topic are similar to those in another recently released poll of American attitudes.

The Education Next poll, released in mid-August by educators at Harvard University, found as many as 45 percent of respondents supported vouchers. That percentage dropped, though, when the question was phrased to emphasize the government's role in paying for them, or when the subsidy was said to be limited to low-income students. The new PDK poll, by comparison, found 39 percent of respondents nationally supported vouchers, a 6 percentage point difference that might be explained by the combined margins of error in the two polls and by nuances in the phrasing of the questions.

Education Next didn’t have data for Georgia, but the PDK poll did, and found the support for vouchers was 9 percentage points higher than the national average. At 48 percent, supporters were a plurality, but just barely, with 47 percent opposed. (With a margin of error in excess of 5 percentage points in Georgia, either side could actually hold a majority.)

Even so, the poll suggests that Georgians’ are less confident in public education. “Allegiance to traditional public schools is lower among parents in Georgia than in the country overall,” the PDK poll author’s wrote. “If cost and location were not issues, just 27 percent of Georgians would pick a traditional public school, compared with 34 percent of Americans.”

Georgians also stated a stronger preference for job and career training in schools, but were on the same page as the rest of the country on another topic: charter schools.

The Education Next poll from mid-August found plummeting support for the formation of new charter schools, with 39 percent of respondents across the country in favor versus 51 percent the year before. The authors didn't explore why, but speculated that recent debate about charter schools, spurred in part by the NAACP's call for a moratorium on new charter schools, had played a role.

The PDK poll showed Georgians felt the same about charter schools as Americans overall, with nearly one in five saying they would choose a charter school over a traditional public school if they had the choice.

Since Georgians weren’t polled by PDK last year, it’s unclear if their position has changed. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated, have traditionally enjoyed strong support among blacks, but that support seemed to wane in Georgia last year, when a majority voted down Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District. The constitutional amendment would have allowed the state to take over neighborhood public schools and convert them to independent schools under charter management. It also would have allowed conversion of schools to private, for-profit management, which drew sharp criticism. Opponents, including school boards around the state, called the proposal an encroachment on local control, and it was vilified by Atlanta black opinion makers, including Andrew Young and Hank Aaron.

The PDK poll revealed a difference in sentiment on local control, too, with 57 percent of Georgians versus 48 percent of Americans preferring that local school districts, rather than the state or the governor, deal with failing test scores in public schools.