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There is broad agreement across the political spectrum that the public school system needs to be reformed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The question is: How?
Specific education reform proposals vary widely. Some argue that more money and resources are key. Others say that more money would be wasted. Their answer: policy provisions to enforce and maintain high academic standards, with sanctions for poorly-performing schools. Still others contend reform is doomed to fail unless market pressures are introduced into the system through the provision of vouchers to attend private schools.
This debate is intense, particularly after several years of experience with the successes and failures of the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, which enacted into law strict educational standards, mandatory testing, and (at least in theory) more federal funding of public education. The various protagonists in this debate naturally claim public support for their positions, yet a comprehensive survey of public opinion polls shows that the public’s ideas for reform do not fit neatly into any one of the camps in this debate.
Despite criticisms of its current performance, the public’s views on educational reform start with strong support of the public school system—particularly as it functions for low-income students. The public wants that performance improved, starting with higher standards, and is willing to tolerate fairly strict guidelines and testing regimes to accomplish this goal.
But the public recognizes that these tougher standards need to be tempered with flexibility. And it believes the quest for educational excellence means that more money has to be spent on public schools—to reduce class size, attract better teachers, modernize school infrastructure, provide more preschool and afterschool programs, and help lagging schools meet NCLB requirements.
The data also indicates that the public is far more interested in implementing more accountability in public schools and providing more resources to the public school system than in moving to a voucher-based system. Indeed, vouchers tend to lose badly today when in political propositions precisely because they are perceived to be in conflict with the public’s commitment to adequate resources for public schools.
The more policymakers understand these nuanced views of the public on education reform, the easier it will become to build public support for a strong reform agenda. What the Public Really Wants on Education, our latest monthly analysis of U.S. public opinion polls, seeks to provide that understanding.
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