by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Using public polling as a political weapon is nothing new. A recent bought-and-paid-for-by-the-AFT poll simply lowers the bar.
The leaders of the American Federation of Teachers, a public-sector union representing employees of an education system where nearly two-thirds of its graduates lack proficiency in reading, want you to know that “Parents Prefer Good Neighborhood Schools Over More Choice.” Surprising result? Of course not. They got what they paid for.
The survey by Hart Research Associates is available online, so you can see for yourself how to craft questions to elicit a client’s desired responses. The claims that “five central themes emerge clearly and consistently” and that “choice” isn’t among parental priorities sound impressive – until one wades into the devilish details armed with an inquisitive mind.
The five themes are nicely constructed, at least as seen from a distance. But like that North Korean “Peace Village” in the DMZ, when examined more closely, the nice-looking buildings are revealed to be nothing more than empty shells.
Based on loaded questions, the poll purportedly shows: Parents believe public schools are helping their children achieve their full potential; they want access to a good neighborhood public school much more than increased choice of schools; their top priorities include ensuring a safe and secure environment and equal opportunity for all; they believe public schools are inadequately funded and oppose shifting resources from regular schools to charters and vouchers; they disapprove of Betsy DeVos’ performance as Secretary of Education; and they want more investment in traditional public schools, with particular emphasis on supporting art and music curriculums and providing health and nutrition services.
That’s quite a list, and some of it even mirrors reality. But given the statistics for reading, writing, and math proficiency, one hopes that these parents don’t really believe that their kids are graduating from high school at their full potential. That would be a sad commentary, given that American students placed 27th out of 34 countries in math and 20th in science.
Whenever I see people pushing the meme of “inadequate funding” for public schools, I look for the obvious follow-up question: “How much do you think is adequate?” That question is never asked. Yet we’re spending a lot more per pupil than our economic competitors. Should we be spending 25% more, or 30%? What’s the dollar value of “adequate”? Give us a number and justify it, or shut up.
Space does not permit an in-depth examination of even the most egregious of the survey’s questions. You can read them online, but suffice it to say they are so leading that an attorney would be called on the carpet if he tried to use them in court. Naturally, parents “strongly oppose shifting resources from traditional public schools to fund either charter schools or vouchers.” That response was baked into the question. The solid record of charters and voucher programs is not addressed.
The survey’s demographics helped to ensure the pro-government school outcome. They also ensured that the results will not help education decision-makers in the Granite State. Conducted in 10 major cities across the country, the racial and political breakdown doesn’t match New Hampshire. Of note, nearly half of the parents have a child who qualifies for the federal free/reduced lunch program, a marker for low-income households. In testing, 80 percent of fourth-graders from those households scored below grade level in reading. So when seventy-three percent of parents claim that their public school is “excellent or good,” we should question the validity of the entire poll.
If these parents are so off-the-mark at assessing how poorly their local public schools are doing, why should anyone take seriously their opinions on more complex issues like school choice? Or, as the question put it, the “DeVos Choice Agenda,” as if the issue of school choice hasn’t been debated for decades.
How many parents have an informed opinion of the Education Secretary’s agenda after seven months in office? The press has focused more on protests surrounding her attempts to meet teachers and parents; it’s hard to understand someone when she’s being shouted down by a mob. These pollsters think they can present meaningful information gleaned from parents who couldn’t write two concise, clear sentences describing DeVos’s positions on the federal role in public education. You can draw water from a poisoned well, but it’s best not to drink from it.
The AFT got what it paid for. It’s too bad the same can’t be said of American taxpayers when it comes to paying for public education.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org