Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know the Public on Public Education

Nationally, households with parents of school-aged children make up just 42 percent of all households. Those who are not school-aged parents—that other 58 percent of households—don’t seem to have as much at stake in K–12 education compared to parents. Yet education ranked as the second-highest issue in statewide political races this November, indicating that the public as a whole has been highly exposed to concerns in American education.

Parents and their children will always have the most skin in the game when it comes to K–12 education, but as schooling and education funding become increasingly important issues in the national dialogue, the importance of analyzing the general public’s views will only continue to grow.

In this series, we’re incorporating other surveys, as well as newsworthy events, when appropriate, to contextualize the results of our 2018 Schooling in America Survey. Today, we share the public’s views on public education.


Does the Public Think Public Education is on the Wrong or Right Track?

Americans are growing more optimistic about whether they think K–12 education is moving in the “right direction” (35%), but a majority still think it is headed on the “wrong track” (55%). This year’s results mark a high-point of “right direction” responses, although the general public is less optimistic than parents of school-aged children (41% “right direction”) and public school teachers (42%).


Sentiments on K-12 Education


This perception may be influenced by international comparisons. While many tend to grade their local schools well (more on that below), they can hold more pessimistic views toward national education as a whole. Politicians bring up our middling PISA rankings all the time in an effort to spur education reform. It’s not out of the question to think that those rankings and rhetoric affect public perception.

Pew polled Americans about how colleges and K–12 public schools in the United States size up to the rest of the world. Our higher education institutions passed with flying colors. About half said U.S. colleges and universities are either the “best in the world” or “above average.” They weren’t nearly as generous to public K–12 schools. Only 18 percent ranked them “above average” or higher within the international scope.

That’s the big picture look at the public’s perception of K–12 education. What are their views on the local level?


How Does the Public Grade our K–12 Schools?

On the whole, Americans tend to grade the schools in their communities fairly positively. There are differences by schooling sector, though. Half of Americans (52%) rated their local private schools as an “A” or “B”, compared to 45 percent who did the same for traditional public schools and 57 percent for charter schools. Of course, not all communities have private or charter schools—the latter especially in small town and rural communities—so a potential lack of familiarity may affect sector responses.

More significant was the result of below average grades by sector. A fifth of Americans (23%) graded their local public schools as a “D” or “F,” compared to 15 percent for charter schools and slightly less (9%) for local private schools.

We isolate results just from those who gave schools grades in our responses, while not counting those who weren’t sure or did not respond. Other surveys ask similar questions to the general public about local public schools.

Education Next found Americans mostly rate their local public schools as “Bs” (38%) and “Ds” (34%). PDK found a slightly higher proportion of Americans graded the pubic schools in their communities as an “A” or “B” (43%) as a “C” (38%). And GenForward, in its survey of millennials and public education, reported 18-to-34 -year-olds gave their local public schools mostly “Bs” and “Cs,” although they observed some interesting differences by race/ethnicity. For instance, a plurality of Asian Americans (42%) graded the public schools in their communities a “B,” while the most commonly assigned grade from the three other race/ethnicities broken out (African Americans, Latinos and Whites) was a “C”.

The public’s views on K–12 education are nuanced and growing increasingly important. The public elects school boards and statewide office holders who make education policy decisions that can have lasting effects. That’s especially true when it comes to education funding, which parents and non-parents alike support via their tax dollars.

How does recent media coverage in the wake of teacher walkouts and budget fights compare to public perception? Check back to our blog tomorrow to find out more.


Other Posts in the Schooling in America Series

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know School Parents

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know Our Teachers

Schooling in America Series: K–12 Education Funding

Schooling in America Series: The Public on School Choice