Author(s): Paul DiPerna
The core purpose of the Interstate Survey series is to survey statistically representative statewide samples and report the levels and gaps of voter opinion, knowledge, and awareness when it comes to K-12 education and school choice reforms—particularly with respect to state performance, education spending, graduation rates, achievement rankings, charter schools, virtual schools, tax-credit scholarships, and school vouchers. This is the first of a series of “polling papers” that we will release in the coming months.
In this release we compare voter responses in six states: Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, New Jersey, and New York.
Why choose these states? In a sense these states comprise the open frontier for reforms in K-12 education. None has enacted school voucher or tax-credit scholarship systems. Arkansas, New Jersey, and New York have seen some growth in the charter school sector, but charter school student populations do not exceed 2 percent of the overall student populations in these states. Only New Jersey has had a consequential public debate about voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs in the last couple of years. This project’s six states are similar in that none has been exposed to school choice programs in action, and the charter school sectors (non-existent in Alabama) and virtual school sectors (non-existent in New York) are still in early stages of development.
State differences are equally important for project design. We believe it is important to examine states that at least showed some range of diversity on the political spectrum. Both New York and New Jersey tend to be more liberal in their politics. Unions have a substantial seat of power, especially when it comes to K-12 education. The other four states in our analysis tend to be more ideologically conservative. Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, and Mississippi, are all right-to-work states, for example. Robert Erikson, Gerald Wright, and John McIver have analyzed more than 30 years of CBS/New York Times polls and have established ideological and partisan trends for the 50 states. The Erikson-Wright-McIver ideology and partisan scales influenced state selection for this project. If ideology and partisanship drive opinion on school choice reforms, as news media and public officials often suggest, then we should detect corresponding differences in the polling topline results and crosstabs. If there is no such pattern, then a new storyline is needed when discussing school choice reforms and issues.
The six states vary on a number of basic indicators in K-12 education (see page 4). The states are rather different when it comes to student achievement on tests and high school graduation rates. New Jersey and Kansas tend to be higher-achieving and graduate a greater proportion of high school students. New York is in the middle. Arkansas is not far behind the Empire State. Mississippi and Alabama rank near the bottom. Some of the variation in academic achievement and attainment likely corresponds with the levels of poverty and education in the home. Mississippi is the poorest state in our survey.
Considering raw size, New York’s student population is more than four times larger than Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, or Mississippi. New Jersey is nearly half the size of New York. Similar variations are noticeable in terms of numbers of schools and school districts. New York and New Jersey have 728 and 616 school districts, respectively. Alabama has the fewest school districts (133). Southern states tend to have more centralized control in K-12 education, having more students in relatively fewer school districts. Northeastern and Midwestern states are more likely to emphasize decentralized local control in K-12 education with a high number of school districts and relatively fewer students.
The private sector plays a more active role in some states compared with others. This is particularly true in New Jersey and New York. Both states have more than 12 percent of students going to private schools. The other four states in the survey have less than 9 percent of their school-age students in private schools. The number of private school students in New York is almost equal to the number of public school students in Arkansas or Kansas. New Jersey has more than 200,000 students in private schools.
Per student spending also differs from state to state. Some spending differences may be explained by cost-of-living adjustments, but it cannot explain all differences. New York and New Jersey spend roughly double what is spent in Alabama, Arkansas, or Mississippi. State demographics, ideologies, political processes, and relative power of special interests are likely to be major factors. Statewide demographics and their associations with public opinion will be explored further in future polling papers.
At a very basic level, this paper reports out snapshots of how the six states compare with one another on 19 substantive questions and 13 demographic questions (see pages 20-34). The next section summarizes key findings.
This paper is presented in four sections. The first section summarizes key findings. We call the second section “Survey Snapshots,” and this represents the body of the paper. The third section describes the survey’s methodology, summarizes response statistics, and presents additional technical information on call dispositions for landline and cell phone interviews. The fourth section lays out the questionnaire and question-by-question results (topline data), essentially allowing the reader to follow the actual interview as it was conducted in terms of question wording and ordering. This paper sets out to provide fundamental analysis, going light on editorial commentary, and letting the charts and numbers communicate the major findings.