Author(s): Dick M. Carpenter II
For the past several decades, a perennial topic on surveys about education has been school choice. Interest in public opinion about choice is more than just “nice to know.” The results are often used to support or oppose choice in general or specific choice initiatives under consideration or adopted by state legislatures and even school boards. Until recently, however, surveys about school choice have been limited in their scope and not particularly sophisticated, reducing their utility. In particular, few have used experimental designs, most are analyzed with simple descriptive statistics, and important topics are understudied. In response, this report uses a survey experiment to examine four research questions:
- Is there a significant difference in support for choice based on reasons for school choice?
- Is there a significant difference in levels of agreement with reasons for school choice?
- Which type of choice enjoys the strongest support?
- How does a policy of school choice compare to other reform initiatives in their perceived efficacy for school improvement?
Data were collected from a national sample of 1,000 respondents as part of the post-election wave of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES).
Analyses used multiple regression and repeated measure ACOVA. Results indicated when presented with six different school choice options, respondents most favored tax credits and least favored low-income vouchers, with only trivial differences in support among the remaining types of choice. When asked to rate the efficacy of choice among other types of reform, results indicated school choice through vouchers was not seen as the most efficacious way to reform education in the U.S. (that designation belonged to smaller class sizes), but it was also not seen as the least (longer school days was so identified). Across three different reasons—freedom, competition, and equality—freedom was significantly more salient among participants. However, freedom’s salience generally did not translate to a difference in support for various forms of choice. In fact, in only a few instances were there significant differences in support for choice based on any of the three reasons.
By way of implications, to the extent policymakers are interested in adopting new school choice legislation, tax credit programs of any kind may represent an option that finds broader support in the general population and in courts of law. For those interested in creating new voucher programs, results showing support for universal vouchers versus low-income vouchers may indicate a reason to rethink past strategies of policy incrementalism. But enthusiasm should be tempered by the finding that respondents rated three structural status quo reform options—smaller class sizes, increased technology, and accountability—ahead of school choice as a way to improve schools. The fact that respondents preferred structural status-quo ideas after rating public schools in the U.S. somewhere between “poor” and “fair” means choice supporters still have much work to do to overcome an ideology favorable to the types of schools the vast majority of Americans attend and to which they send their children.