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Education a Key Issue in 2020 Race Even Before the Pandemic, Poll Finds

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As the nation heads into the final stretch of the 2020 campaign, a new poll finds that a majority of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump's handling of education policy.

Six in 10 respondents to the annual poll by PDK International said education is "extremely" or "very important" in determining their presidential vote. And for the 19th consecutive year, a "lack of financial support" topped the polls list of the biggest problems facing public schools, with 19 percent of respondents listing it in response to an open-ended question.

This year's version of poll, which also covers issues like testing and reading instruction, was conducted in March, "before the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States," PDK notes. That pandemic has disrupted the education world in previously unthinkable ways, leading to extended school shutdowns, economic uncertainty, and concerns about retaining teachers and staff.

"Our nation is sharply divided over public policy issues, yet Americans tend to agree that we need to support our public schools," PDK International CEO Joshua Starr said in a statement. "Right now, we're all struggling to respond to the coronavirus. But even in the midst of the immediate crisis, we can't afford to lose sight of our long-term goals and commitments." 

The poll doesn't capture how Trump's response the coronavirus, which has fared poorly in other polls, has influenced the public's perception of handling of education. Despite a push by Trump to reopen physical school buildings, for example, a July AP-NORC Poll  found 31 percent of Americans don't believe schools should re-open for in-person learning.

And some other national polls haven't found education to be a top issue for voters. Some of that may relate to how the question is phrased. In a June Reuters/Ipsos poll, for example, respondents were most likely to list the economy and employment as "the most important problem facing the U.S. today." A June Economist/YouGov poll had similar results.

Here are a few of the PDK poll's key findings.

On Federal Education Priorities

Asked about Trump's handling of education policy, 45 percent of respondents said they approved and 53 percent disapproved.

And there was a predictable partisan divide in those responses: Eighty-six percent of Republicans approved, compared with 11 percent of Democrats.

The poll also asked respondents whether they want Washington to focus more or less on certain education issues—college affordability, the expansion of charter schools, efforts to "attract and retain good teachers," the availability of public pre-kindergarten programs, and protecting students from discrimination.

Regardless of who is elected, the most respondents, 85 percent, said helping schools attract and retain good teachers should be more of a federal priority.

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On Testing

Asked about schools in their own community, 41 percent of respondents said they place "too much emphasis on achievement testing," 36 percent said the current level is "about right," and 21 percent said there's not enough emphasis on testing in their local schools.

"Views that there's too much emphasis on testing grew from 19% of adults in 1997 to a high of 43% in the 2007 PDK poll; it's essentially the same now," the poll report notes. "This sense has eased, however, among parents, from a peak of 52% in 2007 to 38% now."

Asked whether certain uses of test results were appropriate or inappropriate, respondents were most likely to support using the data for determining eligibility for a special academic program.

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On Charter Schools and Vouchers

Asked where they would send their oldest child if cost were not a factor, about six in 10 respondents with children in public schools said they would stick with their current school, PDK reports.

Asked if they support creating charter schools "if that means reducing the amount of funds available for traditional public schools," 59 percent of respondents said they opposed it and about 40 percent support it.

The poll also asked if respondents support or oppose "a voucher program in which parents can use tax money that now goes to their local public schools to partly pay for private school tuition." Respondents as a whole were less likely to support such a program if the funds were used to pay for tuition at a religious school. Parents were split on that issue.

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On Promoting Diversity

Fifty-four percent of respondents said they oppose school districts offering a special academic program that uses test scores to determine which students qualify if "many lower-income students" qualify as a result. Asked a similar question about a program where many Black and Hispanic students don't qualify, 53 percent of respondents said they would oppose offering such a program.

On Reading Instruction

PDK asked respondents about a debate that has surged in the education world in recent years but hasn't gotten as much broad public attention: how to teach children to read.

"For many decades, teacher educators were divided into two camps: those who favored whole language, characterized by the idea that reading is a natural process gained through exposure to authentic texts, and those who believed in systematic phonics instruction, which is the explicit teaching of sound-letter relationships," Education Week's Madeline Will wrote in our special report on reading. "The so-called 'reading wars' led to the convening of a National Reading Panel in 2000, which found evidence that explicit phonics lessons help kids become better readers. The review did not find the same about whole language."

The poll asked respondents which method was most effective for teaching reading and literacy. It described phonics as "showing students how to recognize sounds within words;" whole language instruction as "showing students how to recognize words in the context of sentences and stories that they can understand;" and a "balanced approach" that combines both. By a significant margin, respondents were more likely to support the "balanced approach."

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Photo: Getty


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