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Betsy DeVos Is Not Popular, But Is Approval for School Choice Increasing?

The past 18 months have been tough in many respects for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She went through a tough confirmation hearing, has had her budget proposals mostly rejected by Congress, and she's consistently ranked among the least-popular members of President Donald Trump's cabinet.

Yet it's possible that public opinion on school choice—the issue DeVos cares about the most—has shifted at least a little in her favor, according to one new poll. (In case you were wondering, the EdNext poll does not mention DeVos by name.)

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The academic journal Education Next released its annual survey of public attitudes about education on Tuesday. And in the 2018 results, overall approval ratings for charter schools and universal private school vouchers (for all parents with children in public schools) rose, as well as narrower approval ratings among both Democrats and Republicans. Here, for example, is the increase in approval ratings for vouchers that dates back a couple of years—overall approval went up mostly due to higher approval in the GOP, although Democratic support also inched up:


Here's a quick breakdown of that chart: In 2018, 15 percent of the general public said they strongly support charters and 29 percent said they somewhat support charters. Meanwhile, 21 percent said they somewhat oppose charters, 14 percent said they strongly oppose them, and 21 percent said they neither support nor oppose them. 

And here's the EdNext poll on support for vouchers:


The breakdown again: 22 percent of the general public said they strongly support universal vouchers and 32 percent said they somewhat support them. And 14 percent said they somewhat oppose such vouchers, 17 percent they strongly oppose them, and 15 percent said they neither support nor oppose. 

Let's briefly touch on one other general position DeVos holds: Increasing spending on schools is not the solution to improving student success. In the EdNext poll for 2018, after being given information about per-pupil spending in their local school districts, 13 percent of the general public said government funding for schools should "greatly increase" and 34 percent said it should "increase." And 43 percent said funding should "stay about the same." Just 8 percent said it should decrease.

One important caveat about that voucher question: The question Education Next used that leads to the 54 percent approval for vouchers does not actually use the word "vouchers." Instead, the EdNext poll describe the policy of vouchers as one "that would give all families with children in public schools a wider choice, by allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition." Approval drops in the poll when the word "vouchers" is used in a different version of the question. 

Interestingly, general support for vouchers targeted at low-income vouchers remained pretty much flat in the EdNext poll results for 2018. And overall approval ratings tax-credit scholarships rose a tad, but not to the same extent as the general public's approval for charters and universal vouchers. 

Those increases in overall approval for two policies DeVos strongly supports roughly coincide with her tenure as education secretary. But it's another thing to assert that DeVos has had a direct impact on public opinion on these issues. It will also be interesting to see if this relatively brief trend holds up over the next few years, or if support for charters and universal vouchers flattens out or drops. 

In a column for Forbes about the EdNext results, Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the pro-school-choice American Enterprise Institute, said the new poll shows that "the public consistently lines up with DeVos" on big school choice questions, despite many people labeling her an "out-of-touch extremist." (Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for edweek.org, uses the word "voucher" when noting the 54-percent approval rating for vouchers, even though the poll question about vouchers doesn't use that word.) 

As it happens, Phi Delta Kappa International will release the results of its annual opinion poll concerning education Aug. 27. Will it touch on school choice, and if so, what will the findings be? Stay tuned.

For more on the EdNext poll, read our colleague Maddy Will's report on the public's view of teacher pay increases—she also looks at the voucher question. 

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