Voucher Advocates Dismiss Poll Showing Increased Opposition

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll - considered a barometer for gauging public opinion on educational issues - reports an 8-point drop in support for vouchers this year, prompting school choice advocates to question the poll's validity.

Vouchers are one of the many educational subjects addressed in the survey, which is now in its 35th year. At issue is the wording of a Gallup Poll question that critics say portrays vouchers in a negative light.

Sixty percent of the people surveyed said they oppose "allowing students and parents to choose private schools at public expense." While 38 percent said they support vouchers, the 8-point change from one year earlier has raised eyebrows.

In 2002, support for vouchers rose 12 percentage points to 46 percent, while opposition dwindled to 52 percent. The pro-voucher momentum that showed up last year, however, seems to have disappeared with this year's figures returning to previous levels.

Terry M. Moe, a professor at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a leading critic of the methodology used by Gallup to gauge the public's opinion of vouchers. Moe wrote an article last year for Education Next criticizing the poll.

His concerns center on the "at public expense" clause in the voucher question. Moe said it automatically gives respondents a negative view of vouchers, regardless of whether they know the underlying details of the debate.

"That's a bad question on its face," Moe said. "It's badly worded. It's begging people to see vouchers as a raid on the public treasury. More people are likely to give a negative response to it. That's obvious, but they keep asking it year after year."

Prior to this year's survey, which he hasn't yet reviewed, Moe also raised objections to the sequence in which the questions about vouchers were asked.

This isn't the first time Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa have heard complaints about the poll. They offered a lengthy rebuttal to Moe's Education Next article last year.

Lowell C. Rose, executive director emeritus of Phi Delta Kappa International, said he stood by the survey, while acknowledging that Gallup had taken steps to address Moe's concern about the sequencing of the questions. Following last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of vouchers, Rose said the survey needed to be revamped.

"The issue that Mr. Moe raised was based on the sequencing of two questions, and this year we didn't even ask one of those questions," Rose said. "That was not an issue any longer."

Moe noted, however, that Gallup eliminated the question that he called "well worded" and kept the biased question in the survey.

He also said the 2002 survey that showed a sharp increase in support for vouchers was likely flawed after an experiment by Gallup failed. An internal mistake, rather than a broad shift in public opinion, was more likely the cause of the spike, Moe said.

Alec M. Gallup, co-chairman of the Gallup Organization, didn't return a call seeking comment.

The Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher organization, also railed about the poll's "biased and misleading questions." The group highlighted several other polls that show a majority of Americans support voucher programs.

They include a poll released in May by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which reported 52 percent support for vouchers, as well as an August 2002 survey conducted by Zogby International, which showed 76 percent of the general population supported vouchers when "tax dollars" were not mentioned in the question.

Even Rose said it was difficult to pinpoint how many Americans support or oppose the idea of vouchers, which is one reason his organization didn't make the voucher question a priority.

"We didn't hit vouchers hard this year because we didn't think there was much to find out," Rose said. "We think voucher support is somewhere between 35 and 45 percent, and the opposition is somewhere between 50 and 60 percent. At the moment, there isn't a whole lot to find out."

But for voucher advocates like Ak'Bar Shabazz, a member of the black leadership network Project 21, poll numbers won't deter efforts to bring school choice to failing schools. He said vouchers would help inner-city children, which is why blacks tend to support the idea more than others.

"If they don't have the money, blacks are required to go to a non-functioning, drug- and gang-infested schools," Shabazz said. "They have no alternative. They have to go to the school down the street, and if it doesn't perform, they have to go there anyway.

"That's why the black community is in favor of vouchers," he added, "because they are the people who are imprisoned in these schools right now."

See Earlier Story:
Conflicting Polls on Schooling: Whom Do You Believe?
(Aug. 21, 2002)

Listen to audio for this story.

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.