ATLANTA, Aug. 3, 2015 — Bukhari Nuriddin takes his son Sam, 10, to the new Kindezi Schools campus in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood on opening day. The charter school startup is taking the place of a charter school that was shuttered over the summer after five years of failure. The new operator, who met with success at the first Kindezi campus across town, has high hopes for this new elementary school, near a park frequented by the homeless. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

National poll finds waning support for charter schools

An annual education poll finds plummeting approval of charter schools nationally but steadfast support for other types of school choice, such as tax-credits for private school scholarships.

Last year, a slim majority of respondents in the Education Next poll, connected to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said they supported the formation of new charter schools, but a year later that approval rating has dropped 12 percentage points, to 39 percent.

More still support charter schools than oppose them, with 36 percent against (one in four of those polled was neutral).

“But that 12 percentage point drop,” said Martin R. West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “is the largest we see on any survey item between 2016 and 2017, and one of the largest single year changes in opinion that we’ve seen over the 11-year history of the Education Next survey.”

The poll did not look at state-specific results, so it’s unclear whether sentiment has shifted in Georgia. But last year voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to take over schools and put them in an Opportunity School District, with the option of converting them to charters.

And last week, the Atlanta Public Schools board, with a reputation for being supportive of charter schools, voted 8-1 to deny a charter petition.

Among the stated reasons for rejecting Ethos Classical Charter School: “lack of community support.”

Charters have occupied a strange niche in politics, enjoying bipartisan support for years. The past year saw support drop among poll respondents from both parties, though Republicans remain more favorable than Democrats.

The Education Next poll leaders didn’t explore why support for charters has dropped so precipitously, though they speculated that a growing public debate about charters, including a call for a freeze on new charter schools by the NAACP, played a role. 

That appraisal resonates in Georgia, where black voters turned out in large numbers several years ago to help pass a constitutional amendment confirming state authority to grant charters, but played a crucial role in the November defeat of the constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools sees this as a fleeting setback.

“The findings of Education Next’s poll seem more reflective of the unique moment we’re in,” the organization said. “With the spotlight shone on public school choice this election year, we’ve seen a stirring up of opinion ... and we’ve also seen expensive, sustained, and coordinated campaigns to discredit charter schools, led by teachers’ unions and special interests that feel threatened by families having a choice in public school.”

Though charter schools may be losing their luster, at least in this poll, other forms of school choice remain popular.

Tax credit-funded scholarships, of the sort employed in Georgia, where the state Supreme Court recently ruled on their constitutionality, were favored by 55 percent of respondents. Vouchers were less popular, but generally had more supporters than opponents depending upon how the question was phrased.

(More supported “universal” vouchers than vouchers for only the poor, though support fell precipitously when it was made clear that vouchers involve the expenditure of government funds.)

The poll produced nuanced results, with some respondents given questions that noted Pres. Donald Trump’s education policies while others given questions stripped of political context. There was similar random variation in questions about the value of a college degree versus a two-year associate’s. Other questions covered teacher merit pay, national academic standards (also known as the “Common Core”), immigration and English immersion in school, computers in school and Muslim students and after school clubs.

See the results for yourself here.

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