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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, May 13, 2017 1:00 am

Poll: Most in US fine with school choice

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Even as fierce political battles rage in Washington over school choice, most Americans know little about charter schools or private school voucher programs. Still, more Americans feel positively than negatively about expanding those programs, according to a new poll released Friday.

“I wonder what the fuss is about,” said Beverly Brown, 61, a retired grocery store worker in central Alabama. Brown, who doesn't have children, says American schools need reform, but she is not familiar with specific school options and policies. “Educational standards have to be improved overall.”

All told, 58 percent of respondents say they know little or nothing at all about charter schools and 66 percent report the same about private school voucher programs, according to the poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Charters are schools funded by taxpayer money, but they operate independently of school districts and thus have more freedom in setting their curriculum and hiring staff. Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships given to low-income families to help cover tuition in private schools, including religious ones.

Using taxpayer money to aid struggling public schools or diverting it to fund more charter schools or make private schools available to more families has been hotly debated since Donald Trump was elected president. Teachers unions and some Democrats are fiercely opposed, saying school choice drains funds from public schools while leaving charter and private schools unaccountable on academic standards and civil rights protections.

Charter schools operate in 42 states and the District of Columbia; 30 states have voucher or similar education choice programs.

Even though they are unfamiliar to many, Americans have largely positive reactions to charter schools and vouchers. While 55 percent of respondents say parents in their communities had enough options with regard to schools, about 4 in 10 feel the country in general would benefit from more choice.

Forty-seven percent say they favor opening more public charter schools, 23 percent are opposed, and 30 percent feel neutral about it. Meanwhile, 43 percent of respondents support giving low-income families tuition vouchers for private schools, 35 percent are opposed and 21 percent don't have a strong opinion either way.

Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to favor opening more charter schools, 53 percent to 42 percent, but there is little partisan variation for vouchers. At the same time, opposition to vouchers is highest among those who have heard the most about them.