Public Opinion Watch

Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira

In this edition of Public Opinion Watch:

• Time to Change Course in Iraq?

• Public Opinion on Public Education

Time to Change Course in Iraq?

For understandable reasons, survey results on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have received the most attention in the recent wave of public poll releases. But it is striking what these polls also tell us about the public’s views on Iraq. To put it in a nutshell, the public is running out of patience with the Iraq conflict and is now actively looking for a way to end U.S. involvement in that conflict.

Consider these results from several recent polls.

In the latest Pew Research Center poll, sentiment that the United States should set a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq has spiked upwards, from a closely divided 49 percent to 45 percent split in July to a 57 percent to 37 percent pro-timetable result today. And 39 percent—the highest ever—think that Iraq will turn out to be “another Vietnam.”

While the public may increasingly know what they want vis-à-vis Iraq, they do not believe they are getting it from their nation’s leaders. By 63 percent to 30 percent, they say that Bush does not have a “clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion.” But they have no more confidence in the Democratic leaders in Congress: by 71 percent to 18 percent, they say the Democrats don’t have a “clear alternative for how to deal with the situation in Iraq.”

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, just 37 percent approve of the job Bush is doing on Iraq, compared to 58 percent who disapprove. Even more impressive, the number approving of Bush’s handling on the war of terrorism is now down to 43 percent, with 51 percent disapproving—the worst result I think I’ve ever seen for a Bush approval rating in this area.

In this poll, only 37 percent are willing to say that “removing Saddam Hussein from power was . . . worth the number of U.S. military casualties and the financial cost of the war,” compared to 51 percent who say that removing Hussein wasn’t worth these costs—easily the most negative result yet on this question. And, by a solid 55 percent to 36 percent margin, the public endorses reducing troop levels in Iraq “since elections have been held,” rather than maintaining troop levels in Iraq “to help secure peace and stability.”

In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, 36 percent approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq and 59 percent disapprove. And 75 percent believe he lacks a clear plan for “getting American troops out of Iraq.”

In addition, by 50 percent to 44 percent, the public now believes that the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, rather than that the United States did the right thing by taking military action. And, by a commanding 59 percent to 36 percent margin, they say that the United States should either decrease (27 percent) or remove all (32 percent) U.S. troops, rather than maintain U.S. troop levels (26 percent) or increase them (10 percent).

The poll also has a very interesting result that shows how much things have changed since February of this year. At that time, by 55 percent to 40 percent, people said that the U.S. troops should stay in Iraq “as long as it takes” to make sure Iraq is stable, rather than remove U.S. troops as soon as possible, even if Iraq wasn’t stabilized. Today, that sentiment has reversed. By 52 percent to 42 percent, the public wants to remove U.S. troops as soon as possible, rather than keep them there until Iraq stabilizes.

Two other results indicate just how jaundiced the public view of Iraq is becoming. By 49 percent to 43 percent, they say that they are “not proud” of what the United States is doing in Iraq. And a mere 30 percent are now willing to say that the Iraq war has made the U.S. more safe from terrorism.

Finally, the latest Gallup poll, which was conducted somewhat later (September 16–18) than the other polls cited above, has Bush’s approval rating on Iraq at a stunningly low 32 percent, with 67 percent disapproval. Moreover, 59 percent now say that the United States “made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq”—by far, the highest number so far—compared to just 39 percent who say that we didn’t. And 63 percent now declare themselves in favor of withdrawing some or all troops from Iraq, rather than keeping or increasing the current level (34 percent).

It’s getting increasingly obvious what the public wants—that “clear plan” for Iraq they haven’t as yet seen from their political leaders. Now might be a good time for those leaders to reconsider their reticence and supply it.

Public Opinion on Public Education

Every year, Phi Delta Kappa collaborates with Gallup to do a survey of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools. The content varies from year to year, though there are a number of questions that have been asked for several or even many years. This year’s poll contains a number of interesting findings that are worth flagging.

1. In an open-ended question, lack of financial support for the public schools is cited by the most respondents (20 percent) as the biggest problem facing public schools in their community. That’s been true every year since 2000. Prior to that, use of drugs or lack of discipline tended to top the list.

2. As always, people rate the public school their oldest child attends the best (69 percent A or B), the public schools in their community the second highest (57 percent A or B among public school parents; 48 percent among all adults), and the schools in the nation as a whole the worst (26 percent A or B among public school parents; 24 percent among all adults).

3. A slight increase over 2004 finds 68 percent of the public saying that reform of the existing public schools is the way to go to improve public education and just 23 percent saying the focus should be finding an alternative to the current system.

4. In terms of vouchers, the poll finds 57 percent opposing “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense,” compared to 38 percent who favor such an approach. That’s consistent with the results of many recent state referenda where vouchers have been soundly defeated and with the results of Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa polls since 1998 when support for vouchers peaked at 44 percent. While a comeback for vouchers in terms of public support cannot be ruled out, right now they’re looking like a pretty weak part of the conservative agenda.

5. On charter schools, the public declares themselves in favor of the general concept (49 percent to 41 percent, up from 49 percent to 42 percent opposition in 2001), but insists overwhelmingly (80 percent to 14 percent) that such schools should be accountable to states in the same way public schools are.

6. While a substantial group (36 percent) feel there is too much emphasis on achievement testing in the public schools in their community, most (57 percent) feel there is either about the right amount (40 percent) or not enough (17 percent). In addition, by an overwhelming 67 percent to 28 percent margin, they favor expanding No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing in high school to grades 9, 10, and 11.

7. The public is closely divided, however, on whether standardized tests should be used as a measurement of teacher quality (52 percent to 44 percent in favor) or principal quality (50 percent to 46 percent). And, by 58 percent to 33 percent, they worry that the current emphasis on testing will result in teachers “teaching to the tests,” which they believe, by 54 percent to 39 percent, is a “bad thing.”

8. Looking specifically at NCLB, while reported level of knowledge of the act is going up, 59 percent still say that they know very little or nothing at all about it. Reflecting this lack of knowledge, 45 percent say that they don’t know enough to have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the act. Those who believe they know enough to have an opinion split about 50-50 between favorable and unfavorable views of NCLB.

9. The public dissents from or, at best, is split on a number of different provisions of NCLB described to them in this poll. By 68 percent to 29 percent, they don’t think that a single statewide test provides a fair picture of whether a school needs improvement. By 80 percent to 17 percent, they don’t think that testing devoted to English and math only can provide a fair picture of whether a school in their community needs improvement. By 79 percent to 16 percent, if NCLB designated their child’s school as in need of improvement, they would prefer that additional efforts be made to help their child achieve in that school, rather than transfer their child to another school not so designated. By 68 percent to 28 percent, they don’t think students enrolled in special education should be held to the same academic standards as other students in a school. By 62 percent to 34 percent, they don’t think the standardized test scores of special education students should be included with the test scores of other students in determining whether a school needs improvement. By 85 percent to 13 percent, they believe a school’s performance is better assessed by looking at the improvement students have made during the course of the year, rather than by the percentage of students passing a year-end test. Finally, by 63 percent to 32 percent, they say that the amount of testing improvement required for a school should vary depending on where a school’s achievement levels start out, rather than being uniform across schools.

The public is closely divided (48 percent for/44 percent against) on whether test scores should be reported separately by race and ethnicity, disability status, English-speaking ability and poverty level for schools in their community. And they are split, 47 percent for/48 percent against, on whether, if special education students are the only group in school whose test scores need improvement, the entire school should be designated as needing improvement.

To sum it up: reform, yes; charter schools, yes; vouchers, no; testing, yes, but with more flexibility. That’s the message from this Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa poll, a message broadly consistent with public opinion data collected on education by other surveys.