Surveying State Legislators
By Paul DiPerna
In Surveying State Legislators, EdChoice Vice President of Research and author Paul DiPerna reports findings from a phone survey of 344 state legislators from across the country. With this research, we sought to better understand what state legislators think about a number of education topics, how they feel about the profession, sources of information they trust and how often they consider different sources of influence when making legislative decisions. We believe this is the first systematic phone-only survey of this population in more than 15 years.
Breaking Down the EdChoice “Surveying State Legislators” Report
In this report, you will learn:
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 American 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).
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).