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Don't let disingenuous politicians discredit public education

Bill Smith, Community Voices Columnist • Jan 29, 2019 at 7:45 AM

In September 2018 the educational organization Phi Delta Kappa published its 50th poll of Americans’ attitudes toward the public schools. This survey provides an annual assessment of the perspectives of public school parents and other citizens.

As a former educator, I am always especially interested in the poll’s findings about the public’s view of overall educational performance. In the 2018 survey, 70 percent of public school parents gave grades of A or B to the schools their children attend. In contrast, only 43 percent of respondents gave a grade of A or B to their local schools, and 19 percent gave a grade of A or B to the nation’s schools. These ratings have been remarkably consistent since 1985 (when PDK first asked for all three ratings). Survey participants have always given high grades to schools they know personally, lower grades to schools with which they are less familiar, and abysmal grades to schools with which they have no interaction at all.

To me, these results are a testament to the triumph of political rhetoric over the reality of public school performance. The few pieces of data that enable us to compare today’s schools with those in the “good ole days” indicate that educational performance has held steady or improved over time. Not only have parents consistently approved of the schools their children attend, but scores in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are higher today than they were in the early 1970s.

However, public opinion of our educational system has declined dramatically. In a 1975 Gallup Poll, 62 percent of respondents indicated they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in America’s public schools. By 1983, the year the Reagan Administration released its scathing, but unsupported, indictment of public education in A Nation at Risk, that figure had dropped to 39 percent. In 2014, it hit an all time low of 26 percent.

In other words, disingenuous politicians are winning, and public education is losing. (As an aside, it always amazes me that so many citizens consistently complain about dishonest elected officials and yet seem willing to believe every negative utterance those same politicians make about public schools.)

The 2018 PDK poll contained some other interesting results. Sixty-six percent of respondents said teachers are paid too little, the highest proportion to state that belief in the survey’s 50 run. In addition, 73 percent overall — and 78 percent of parents — said they would support teachers in their community going on strike for better pay.

Sixty-one percent of respondents — and 68 percent of parents — said they have trust and confidence in teachers. However, only 46 percent of parents — the lowest rating ever — said they would want their children to become teachers. That is down from 70 percent in 2009, a precipitous drop that seems to reiterate the public’s current concerns about teacher pay.

There were some especially interesting findings about school funding. Since the first poll in 1969, PDK has asked participants to name education’s biggest problem. Over the survey’s first 32 years, “lack of school funding” was cited as the biggest problem in 1971, 1993 and 2000. However, it has now been citizens’ biggest concern for the last 17 years.

Further, 75 percent of respondents said children in low-income areas do not enjoy the same opportunities as children in other communities, and 69 percent said we should spend more on students who need additional help to succeed in school. That included 58 percent of people who identified as independents and 49 percent of Republicans.

And here’s a little tidbit for privatization advocates: 78 percent of survey participants preferred “reforming the public school system” over “finding an alternative.” This percentage is the highest since PDK first asked the question in 1997.

I’d love to think that politicians in both parties will thoughtfully consider these findings and engage in rigorous, evidence-driven debate about how to give America’s children every opportunity for educational success. But we all know that won’t happen.

As the Republican Party has evolved over the last few decades into the Party of Trump, their leaders’ commitment to denigrating public education, slashing spending and promoting privatization has steadily gained momentum and shows no signs of wavering. The public’s disapproval of these strategies is not likely to affect Republican leadership any more than the fact these policies are unethical and ineffective.

There’s still a chance, however, for Democratic leaders to catch up to the public. As the PDK poll emphatically demonstrates, citizens want to support educators with increased resources and pay. They also want to address inequality, do more to help struggling students, and are committed to strengthening public education, not undermining it.

For once, doing what’s right also happens to be good politics. As voters, we need to make sure that political candidates recognize that fact.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a public school advocate and retired educator.

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