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  • Sep 20 2016

National survey of state legislators illustrates how they make decisions, whom they trust and what they think about educational choice

New EdChoice report documents what’s believed to be first phone-only legislator survey in more than 15 years

INDIANAPOLIS — EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, today released the results from a comprehensive, phone-only survey of nearly 350 state lawmakers from across the United States.

In Surveying State Legislators, EdChoice Vice President of Research and author Paul DiPerna wanted to better understand what state legislators think about a number of education topics, how they feel about their profession, sources of information they trust and how often they consider different sources of influence when making legislative decisions. This is believed to be the first systematic phone-only survey of this population in more than 15 years.

Surveying State Legislators provides a roadmap for understanding not just what legislators think about educational choice, but also how they make policy and legislative decisions,” DiPerna said. “We were able to have substantive interviews with them about how they feel about their jobs and the sources of information the most trust.”

EdChoice President and CEO Robert Enlow said the results of this survey will help supporters of educational choice share their stories more effectively with legislators in their state who have the ability to enact school choice programs.

“Everyone says personal relationships matter when it comes to persuading policymakers to empower parents,” Enlow said. “Now we’ve got the results to prove it, and we know the secret to continuing our success means helping those directly affected by school choice — parents and students — connect with legislators in a meaningful way.”

Enlow noted one key finding from the report is a disconnect between legislators and the American public about the direction of K–12 education in America. According to the survey, only 43 percent of legislators think K–12 education is heading in the wrong direction in their home states, but in a separate national general population survey conducted by EdChoice and Braun Research, 60 percent of the American public thinks education is heading in the wrong direction.

“Families aren’t happy with the way K–12 education is heading, but they don’t seem to be getting through to those in elected office who can change the landscape,” Enlow said. “As much as we might like to think that surveys like this one or news reports or lobbying are the keys to the future of educational choice, the reality is lawmakers trust their personal networks and personal stories far more.”

Surveying State Legislators was conducted in partnership with Braun Research in compliance with guidelines established by the American Association for Public Opinion Research Transparency Initiative. Click here for data and methodology information.

The results of the survey can be broken down into two main categories:

WHAT SOURCES OF INFORMATION LEGISLATORS TRUST

When it comes to setting an agenda, developing legislative priorities and actual voting, a lawmaker’s direct experience is paramount.
The vast majority of legislators (85 percent) say that directly communicating with constituents is of high importance to inform decision-making. That response is followed by “professional experience” (77 percent) and “personal experience” (76 percent). More than one-third of legislators (36 percent) say caucus leadership is highly important. Just more than a quarter (26 percent) indicate the same for information provided by interest groups. On the other end of the spectrum, only 19 percent of respondents point to “hot issues” in the news as very important, and only 13 percent say the same about public opinion surveys/polls. These factors are similar when it comes to actual voting. Once again the highest rated factor for influencing voting is direct communication with constituents (82 percent). Both personal experience (79 percent) and professional experience (76 percent) also appear to be key influences on legislators’ votes.

State legislators have a high degree of trust in personal networks and constituent communications compared with relatively less trust in lobbyists, polls and news media.
On a scale from 0 to 10, we asked legislators how trustworthy they deem specific sources when it comes to making decisions about K–12 education, and we found they are most likely to say personal contacts and networks are highly trustworthy—82 percent gave a rating of 8, 9 or 10. Nearly two out of three legislators highly value communications from district residents, such as emails, phone calls and snail mail. Six out of 10 respondents say they could rely on legislative staff. About half assign high ratings of trust to public meetings. However, none of the following sources garner high trust ratings (aggregated 8, 9 or 10 ratings) from more than one-fifth of the study sample: interest groups (21 percent), lobbyists (16 percent), public opinion surveys/polls (12 percent) and the news media (5 percent).

WHAT LEGISLATORS THINK ABOUT SCHOOL CHOICE

State legislators are more likely to support educational choice options than they are to oppose them.
State legislators are twice as likely to say they favored education savings accounts (ESAs), compared with opposing the concept (61 percent favor vs. 30 percent oppose). Notably, the proportion of “don’t know” or “no answer” responses to our baseline question about ESAs shrunk by 21 points (29 percent to 8 percent) when legislators are given a definition of how ESAs work, and support of the program type remains high. When it comes to other types of school choice, a majority of state legislators (52 percent) say they support school vouchers, and state legislators in the study sample are three times likelier to support charter schools than to oppose them.

Legislators’ views on the direction of K–12 education, vouchers and charters aren’t aligned with the Americans public.
Legislators are slightly more likely to think K–12 education is heading in the “right direction” in their home states (49 percent “right track” vs. 43 percent “wrong track”). Notably, lawmakers’ opinions on the direction of K–12 education are disconnected from the rest of America, where—according to our 2015 Schooling in America Survey—60 percent think education is heading in the wrong direction and only 32 percent think it’s on the right track. We also see some divergence between what legislators think versus what Americans think about school vouchers and charter schools. Legislators are less likely to favor school voucher policies than the general public (52 percent vs. 61 percent, respectively). On the other hand, legislators are more likely to favor charter schools than the general public (67 percent vs. 52 percent, respectively).

ABOUT EDCHOICE

EdChoice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing full and unencumbered educational choice as the best pathway to successful lives and a stronger society. EdChoice believes that families, not bureaucrats, are best equipped to make K-12 schooling decisions for their children. The organization works at the state level to educate diverse audiences, train advocates and engage policymakers on the benefits of high-quality school choice programs. EdChoice is the intellectual legacy of Milton and Rose D. Friedman, who founded the organization in 1996 as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

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