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 about one-half to two-thirds of Americans express support for charter schools. But there are many signs that public opinion on this issue is not necessarily stable. Public levels of support for charter schools can change considerably depending on how questions are framed and whether people have the option of giving neutral answers. Polls also show that many Americans are misinformed about charter schools. Furthermore, very few people have any direct experience with charter schools. Nationwide, over 5 percent of all public school students attended a charter school in 2012-13.1 Eight states did not have any laws permitting charter schools at all in 2012-13.2 As we discuss below, patterns of support and opposition in cities and states with higher proportions of charter schools 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.
Gallup’s January 2014 nationally representative survey found that 81 percent of American adults rated education as an extremely important or very important priority for the president and Congress to deal with in the following year. The economy was the only topic that more Americans rated as an extremely important or very important priority.3 This poll did not specifically distinguish K-12 from higher education.
Gallup also found in 2014 that 28 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.4
Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK), an organization of educators, conducts an annual poll with Gallup. The PDK/Gallup poll has found that, every year from 2010 to 2014, only 17 to 19 percent of Americans gave an “A” or “B” grade to public schools in the nation as a whole. However, people tend to have more positive feelings about the schools in their communities. During those same years, about half of Americans gave the schools in their communities an “A” or “B” grade.5
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, the 2014 PDK/Gallup poll found that:
Local and national polling show that about one-half to two-thirds of the general public favor charter schools and one-third or less say that they oppose charter schools. However, when surveys give respondents the option to answer that their views are neutral or undecided, a substantial number of people say they have no opinion or are unsure and reported support falls somewhat. But support still outweighs opposition in those polls.
The PDK/Gallup survey has found that about two-thirds of the general public favor and one-third oppose charter schools. This pattern has not changed much over the past six years.7 Those who said “don’t know” had to volunteer their answers.
The PDK/Gallup poll yielded very similar results when half of the sample was not offered a definition of charter schools in 2014: 63 percent were in favor, 31 percent opposed and 6 percent said they did not know or refused to answer.8 Again, the PDK/Gallup survey did not explicitly offer respondents the opportunity to answer “I don’t know” to these questions about charter schools but accepted it as a volunteered response.
The 2014 PDK/Gallup survey also found that most parents favored charter schools, but somewhat less than the general public.9
The 2014 PDK/Gallup poll also asked whether charters or traditional public schools provide a better education. While both parents and the general public judged charter schools more highly than traditional public schools, parents were somewhat less positive about charters than the general public and were more likely to see no difference between charters and traditional public schools.10
To learn more about the views of charter school and traditional public school parents, please see the Families section.
More nuanced results emerged from a survey by Education Next, which offered respondents the opportunity to give less polarized answers than just “favor” or “oppose.” Education Next publishes a journal and other content about education. It is sponsored by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Education Next describes itself as partaking “of no program, campaign, or ideology.”11
The 2014 Education Next survey allowed respondents to give answers on a four-point scale, ranging from complete support to complete opposition. In addition, it allowed respondents to say that they neither support nor oppose charter schools.12
With this broader range of possible answers, polls show more nuanced opinions about charter schools. Many respondents clustered in the middle-range answers—somewhat support and somewhat oppose. Eighteen percent of respondents said they neither supported nor opposed charters. Nonetheless, support still outweighed opposition.
The 2014 Education Next survey yielded results for African-Americans and Hispanics that differed only somewhat from the general public views reported above.13 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, which the 2014 Education Next poll found were more opposed to charter schools than the general public or other groups.
While the polls above show that public support for charter schools outweighs opposition, people’s responses are different 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. The nonpartisan Pew Research Center asked a nationally representative sample of adult Americans if they would increase spending, decrease spending or keep spending the same for a variety of programs. In 2013, 60 percent of Americans said they would support increases in funding for education. In fact, there was no area in which more Americans favored increasing spending.14
A 2013 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health found that public education was the area in which Americans would be least willing to see reductions in federal spending in order to reduce the deficit. Sixty-one percent of Americans would not be willing to see spending reduced on public education.15
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. PDK/Gallup in 2002 and 2005 asked whether people would support or oppose charter schools if doing so meant reduced funding for traditional public schools. Opposition far outweighed support.16
PDK/Gallup has not asked this question since 2005. But the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union of educators, asked a similar question in a 2013 poll only of parents.17 The AFT has resolved to emphasize solidarity between teachers at charters and traditional public schools.18 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/Gallup’s poll.
The AFT does not make the precise wordings or full responses to all its questions publicly available. But according to its report, it asked parents about a proposal to “reduce spending on regular public schools, increase spending on charters.”
When the AFT asked parents about the effects of policies that “increase charters and spend less on public schools,”
While these polling questions may be provocative, they indicate that support for charter schools does not hold stable when charters are framed as a threat to traditional public schools’ funding.
Polling also indicates that many Americans are misinformed about charter schools. For example, polling conducted by two different organizations indicates considerable misinformation around 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).
For example, the 2014 PDK/Gallup survey found that the public was misinformed on a number of key issues regarding charter schools, as the chart below demonstrates.21
Similarly, 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.22
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 school students differs from state to state and city to city. But survey results from places where concentrations of charter school students are higher than the national average do not differ much from national survey results. Below we discuss survey results from California, New York City, Kansas City, New Orleans and Michigan, each of which has a concentration of charter school students that is higher than the national average of 5.1 percent. The survey questions and the populations surveyed differed somewhat from place to place, but the patterns of response were generally similar – except in Michigan, where the survey question was very different.
In surveys from California, New York City, Kansas City and New Orleans, one-third or less of respondents oppose charter schools. About one-half to two-thirds of respondents favor charter schools in these local surveys. But as with national results, local results depend on whether surveys explicitly provide people the option to give uncertain or undecided responses. When explicitly provided with those options, a substantial proportion of respondents give uncertain or undecided responses. But support still outweighs opposition in California, New York City, Kansas City and New Orleans.
By contrast, a poll conducted in Michigan shows that the way in which questions are framed can elicit different patterns of response in public opinion surveys. In 2014, the Detroit Free Press published an investigation of Michigan charter schools and found “wasteful spending, conflicts of interest, poor performing schools and a failure to close the worst of the worst.”31 A subsequent statewide survey of likely voters emphasized those findings in one of its questions, eliciting much more negative responses about charter schools.