Passionate advocates and critics often engage in heated debates over the performance, financing and political implications of charter schools. But to what extent does this expert-level debate reflect a similar divide in opinions among the general public?
Polls show that support for charter schools grew steadily from 2008 to 2013 and remained stable from 2013 to 2016, with about one-half to two-thirds of Americans expressing support for charter schools. However, recent polls show that support has declined somewhat since 2016. Furthermore, there are many signs that public opinion on this issue is not necessarily stable or well-informed. Nearly a quarter of Americans neither support nor oppose charter schools, and according to one survey, many Americans are misinformed about charter schools.1
This lack of opinion and information perhaps makes sense given that very few people have any direct experience with charter schools. Nationwide, about 6 percent of all public school students attended a charter school in 2015–16.2 Six states did not have any laws permitting charter schools at all in January 2018.3 However, as we discuss below, even in cities and states with higher proportions of charter schools, support and opposition are fairly similar to nationwide patterns.
Polls consistently indicate that education is a priority for Americans, who are generally dissatisfied with the state of public schools in the nation as a whole. However, polls also indicate that the general public is divided in their support for various proposals for change in education and, as we discuss further below, that most people oppose cutting funding for public schools. These views provide some context for understanding the mixture of support and opposition that people express for charter schools and the opposition they express when survey questions frame charters as a threat to traditional public schools’ funding.
Pew Research Center’s January 2018 nationally representative survey found that 72 percent of American adults think education should be a top priority for the president and Congress. Terrorism was the only topic that more Americans thought should be a top priority.4 This poll did not specifically distinguish K–12 from higher education.
Gallup’s June 2018 nationally representative survey found that 25 percent of Americans expressed very little confidence in the nation’s public schools and only 12 percent expressed a great deal of confidence. That lack of confidence was nearly unchanged from 1999, when 24 percent of Americans expressed very little confidence in public schools and only 14 percent expressed a great deal of confidence.5
Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK), an organization of educators, conducts an annual poll of Americans about K–12 education. The PDK poll has found that in 2018, 19 percent of Americans gave an “A” or “B” grade to public schools in the nation as a whole, down from 24 percent of Americans in 2017 who gave an “A” or “B” grade to public schools in the nation as a whole.6 However, people continue to have more positive feelings about the schools in their communities. In 2018, 43 percent of Americans gave the schools in their communities an “A” or “B” grade, a trend that has remained consistent for years.7 People may rate their local schools more highly than schools nationally for a number of reasons, including that they have more immediate experience of their local schools than of schools nationally and may therefore be less willing to disparage local schools or that they may be more focused on, and aware of, the positive aspects of their local schools.
While polls indicate dissatisfaction, they also indicate divisions over proposals for change and inconsistencies in public opinion on a range of issues in K–12 education besides charter schools. For example, polls found the following:
The PDK poll found that support for charter schools remained relatively stable from 2009 to 2014. During that period, about two-thirds of the general public favored and one-third opposed charter schools.11 Those who answered “I don’t know” had to volunteer their answers.
Unfortunately, the PDK poll has not asked respondents whether they favor or oppose charter schools since 2014, so we are unable to track more current responses. But other studies indicate there may be a decrease in support for charter schools. In a poll conducted by Politico and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in 2017, in a forced-choice question, 55 percent of Americans indicated they favored charter schools in their community and 37 percent indicated they opposed charter schools in their community.12
Although this is a significant decrease from the 2014 PDK poll, in which 70 percent of Americans favored charter schools, these findings must be interpreted with caution since the PDK poll and the Politico/Harvard poll used different question wordings. The PDK poll asked: “Charter schools operate under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools and permits them to operate independently. Do you favor or oppose the idea of charter schools?” The Politico/Harvard poll asked: “As you may know, charter schools are an alternative to public schools. They operate independently of local school boards and districts, though they still receive taxpayer funding. Do you favor or oppose the idea of charter schools in your community?” As discussed later, the wording of questions about charter schools can influence responses.
However, a poll conducted by Education Next has consistently asked the same question about charter schools from 2008 to 2018 and shows that support for charter schools may be dropping. The Education Next Institute publishes a journal and other content about education. It is sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Education Next describes itself as partaking “of no program, campaign, or ideology.”13
The Education Next poll asked: “As you may know, many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?” The Education Next poll found that support for charter schools peaked around 2014, when 55 percent supported charter schools, but three years later, in 2017, only 39 percent of Americans supported them.14
The Education Next poll also shows that, although over the past few years an increasing percentage of people oppose charter schools, many Americans do not necessarily have strong opinions about charter schools. The PDK and Politico/Harvard surveys gave respondents the options only to “favor” or “oppose” charter schools, but more nuanced results emerged in the Education Next surveys that offered respondents the opportunity to give less polarized answers than just “favor” or “oppose.” The Education Next poll allowed respondents to give answers on a five-point scale, ranging from “completely support” to “completely oppose.” In addition, it allowed respondents to indicate that they neither support nor oppose charter schools. Given the broader range in response options, most shy away from completely opposing or supporting. For example, in 2018, only 29 percent of people expressed strong opinions about charter schools: specifically, only 15 percent completely supported them and 14 percent completely opposed them.
The 2018 Education Next survey yielded results for blacks, non-Hispanics and Hispanics that differed only somewhat from the general public views reported above.15 It found that public school parents’ opinions about charter schools were comparable to the general public’s views. One notable subgroup difference is among public school teachers. The 2018 Education Next poll found that slightly more than half of public school teachers—55 percent—oppose charter schools, significantly more than the general public or other groups.
The 2017 Politico/Harvard poll asked whether charters or traditional public schools provide a better education. More—although still less than half of—Americans believe that students receive a better education at a public charter school, and a third believe students receive a better education at a regular public school. Nearly a quarter of Americans do not know or refused to answer the question.16 Since many Americans do not fully understand what charter schools are and do not have experience with charter schools, these opinions may result more from speculation about the quality of education in charter schools than from empirical data or information about the quality of education. To learn more about the views of charter school and traditional public school parents, please see the Families section, and to learn more about the effects of charter schools on student achievement, please see the Student Achievement section.
More people express opposition to charter schools when survey questions frame charters as a threat to traditional public schools’ funding.
Most Americans reject reductions in federal funding for public education and favor proposals to increase funding. In 2017, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center asked a nationally representative sample of adult Americans if they were making the budget for the federal government this year, would they increase, decrease or keep spending the same for a variety of programs. Sixty-seven percent of Americans said they would increase funding for education. There was only one area, veterans’ benefits, in which a higher proportion of Americans—75 percent—would increase spending.17
In this context of support for education funding, when survey questions frame charter schools as taking money away from traditional public schools, support for charters falls even more. PDK asked in 2002 and 2005 whether people would support or oppose charter schools if doing so meant reduced funding for traditional public schools. Opposition far outweighed support.18 A 2017 Politico/Harvard poll found similar results.19
Hart Research Associates conducted a poll of parents in 2017 for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union of educators. The AFT has resolved to emphasize solidarity between teachers at charters and traditional public schools.20 But its poll of parents emphasized competition for funding between charters and traditional public schools. When it used this framing, the AFT’s poll elicited negative reactions in proportions roughly similar to those in PDK’s poll and the more recent Politico/Harvard poll. When asked if they approve or disapprove with a proposal that would reduce spending on regular public schools and use the funds to increase spending on charter schools, 43 percent of parents strongly disapproved while only 13 percent strongly approved.21 While this polling question may be provocative, it indicates that support for charter schools does not hold stable when charters are framed as a threat to traditional public schools' funding.
In a 2017 poll conducted by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, many Americans—58 percent—said they have heard or read only a little or nothing at all about charter schools. The rest said they have heard or read about charter schools a lot or some.22
Many Americans are misinformed about charter schools, according to the 2013 Education Next survey and the 2014 PDK survey. For example, polling conducted by two different organizations indicates considerable misinformation about whether charter schools are public (they are), how they are funded (by taxpayers), whether they can charge tuition (they can’t), whether they can hold religious services or teach religion (they can’t) and whether they can select students based on academic ability (they can’t).23 The 2013 Education Next survey found less but substantial misinformation on many of these topics, including among parents and teachers. Moreover, Education Next found that a substantial number of respondents admitted they did not know the answers to these questions, as the chart below demonstrates.
Unfortunately, these questions have not been asked in surveys since 2014, so it is not possible to know if the public is still misinformed about charter schools. However, since nearly a quarter of Americans in 2018 do not know if they support or oppose charter schools, there is reason to believe Americans may not understand what charter schools are.
What is not clear from this polling is whether and how misinformation about charter schools affects people’s choices about schools and politics. Are parents less likely to send their children to charter schools if they believe that charters can hold religious services? How do voters who believe charter schools can charge tuition evaluate political candidates’ positions on education? Would better information about charter schools change some people’s opinions? Or are opinions shaped by other beliefs, experiences or pieces of knowledge?
The concentration of charter schools differs from state to state and city to city. But survey results from places with many charter schools do not differ much from national survey results. As with national polling, support outweighs opposition in most of the local polls discussed below, although the charter-heavy state of Michigan presents a more complex picture.