Most of the attention paid to the annual PDK/Gallup and the Education Next polls has been on the increasing antipathy toward testing and the Common Core State Standards—and the debate raging about whether this increased opposition is more important than the widespread support for the standards and accountability that still remains.
Less attention has been focused on the findings around charters, in part because the results are mixed. Charter support held steady over the years in one poll, but declined slightly in the other. It could also be because fewer people are informed about and affected by charters and school choice.
The Stakes Are High
Not all people with an opinion matter equally, especially when it comes to charter schools.
In many states, most charters are located in urban areas, turning them into an abstraction for people in the rest of the state. Where charters operate all over a state, their market share is much smaller than the traditional public schools. That means that the general public only learns about charters through the arguments of other stakeholders.
Those who are closely connected to something are more likely to act on their opinions than those without a stake in the issue. Parents care because they want to protect their child’s charter school or because they want more choices and waiting lists are growing every year. Union teachers care because they believe their job security is threatened by the expansion of charters.
Much of the recent movement in opinion appears to involve previously undecided respondents. The polls all break down results by the general public and parents of school children, as well as subgroups based on race and ethnicity or partisan affiliation. They do not examine charter parents separately.
Who Supports Charters?
About three million students, or 4.6 percent of public school students, attend charters. For the sake of a back-of-the-envelope calculation, if we assume roughly two parents per child, as many as six million adults may have chosen a charter school for their own child last year. For the politically inclined, current charter parents outnumber the teachers in traditional public schools almost two-to-one. The ratio gets much bigger if we count all the parents who ever chose a charter.
When policymakers decide what to do about charter schools in the future, the parents in these schools and the teachers in traditional public schools are likely to hold more influence than everyone else.
Among the general public, the fundamentals of charter support are strong. The PDK/Gallup’s analysis concludes that “many Americans have come to accept choice and charters as part of the education landscape.” Specifically, PDK/Gallup finds that 64 percent of the general public supports the idea of charter schools, up from 63 percent last year. The Education Next poll, meanwhile, shows 51 percent for charter schools among the general public, which is down 3 percent from their poll last year.
The More You Know
It is interesting to explore the impact of basic information about charter schools on the general public. Both polls provide evidence that the information you provide about charter schools can affect the opinions of some respondents.
Last year, the PDK/Gallup poll tested how support for charter schools changed when respondents were given a basic definition of the concept. Providing the definition increased support for charter schools from 63 to 70 percent.
This year’s PDK/Gallup poll did not include that test, but the Education Next poll did conduct a similar experiment this year. Their results were the opposite. When compared to respondents who were not provided with a definition, when the definition was provided the percent of those in favor increased 4 points to 51 percent and those opposed increased 8 points to 27 percent.
Oddly, this year it would appear that providing a factual definition earns charter schools roughly twice as many new opponents as it does supporters. But when undecided people are handled differently, as was the case in the PDK/Gallup poll, the extra information increased support.
Even considering this nuance, the polling results show that charter schools still enjoy widespread support.
Still, charter advocates can’t afford to become complacent, especially given what is happening around other reforms such as Common Core and testing.
If charter support is soft, and subject to misinformation, some of those without a direct stake in the schools could be turned away from charter schools by the opponents’ communications strategies.
Charter supporters, including educators and families with a stake in their charter schools, may need to step up and play a more proactive role by responding to inaccurate and politically motivated attacks.