The Rebound in Charter Support — But Also a Widening Partisan Divide



By and 03/27/2018

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Charters are making a rebound—at least among Republicans and African Americans. Last fall, the 2017 Poll administered by Education Next (EdNext) reported a steep drop in support for the formation of charter schools. Only 39 percent of the public supported charters, a remarkable change from the 51 percent level of support registered in 2016. With 36 percent of the public opposing charter schooling in 2017, this 3 percentage point margin is the smallest that EdNext has observed since it posed the issue to the public in 2007. Over the previous decade, support for charters had consistently outpaced opposition by 20 to 30 percentage points.

Critics cheered that public opinion had finally vindicated their position on charter schools. Advocates rushed to the defense. But amidst this hysteria, Frederick Hess and Amy Cummings at the American Enterprise Institute wondered: “Could the dip be a blip?” Thanks to the Understanding America Study (UAS), a survey regularly administered to a nationally-representative sample of US adults by the University of Southern California, we had an opportunity to find out. In January 2018, we once again asked public about charters.

The question asked in both the EdNext and UAS surveys runs as follows: “As you may know, many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?”

The latest result: 47 percent of US adults support charter schools and 29 percent oppose them, with the remaining not having an opinion. These results show a sizeable rebound in support for charters since 2017 (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Opinion on Charter Schools among the General Public

Notes: N = 4,617 for the Understanding America Study. N = 4,214 for the 2017 Education Next Poll. Respondents were asked: “As you may know, many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?”

We also found greater support for charter schools among black and white Americans. These results are shown in Table 1. The results from the two surveys show a 10 percentage-point higher level of support among blacks and a 7 percentage-point higher level of support among whites in January 2018 than in the summer of 2017. Meanwhile, Hispanic support for charters increased 5 percentage points from 39 to 44 percent.

Table 1. Public Opinion of Charter Schools from the Understanding American Study and the 2017 Education Next Survey

Understanding America Study   2017 Education Next Poll
Support Oppose Neither   Support Oppose Neither
All 47 29 24 39 36 25
Blacks 47 25 28 37 35 28
Hispanics 44 26 31 39 33 28
Whites 47 30 22 40 37 23
Parents 49 26 25 44 33 23
Republicans 58 19 23 47 30 22
Democrats 38 46 15 34 41 26

 

Notes: N = 4,617 for the Understanding America Study. N = 4,214 for the 2017 Education Next Poll. Respondents were asked: “As you may know, many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?”

Support for charter schools among parents likewise increased by 5 percentage points from 44 to 49 percent across the two surveys.

How do these numbers fit into broader trends? Figure 2 reproduces eleven years of polling about charter schools based on the Education Next Poll and adds new results from the UAS. (Note that the percentages reflect the proportion of respondents who strongly or somewhat supported charter schools among respondents who had an opinion on the matter.)

Figure 2: Trends in Public Opinion on Charter Schools for the Full Sample and by Political Affiliation

Note: The percentages shown are for those taking a side on the issue by saying they either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the policy; those giving the neutral response —”neither support nor oppose”—are omitted. In the 2008 through 2012 Education Next Polls, the neutral category was placed as the middle option among five response categories. Beginning in 2013, the neutral category was placed as the fifth option, a change indicated in the figure with a vertical black line. The neutral category was also placed as a fifth option in the Understanding America Study. Trends that take place across the vertical black line could be due to this change in the survey’s design.

The uptick in charter support in January among the general public is sizeable, jumping 10 percentage points from 52 to 62 percent. Much of this change in support is attributable to the 14 percentage-point increase among Republicans. Support among Republicans rebounded to 75 percentage points — a level that, besides 2017, has persisted since 2013 (see Figure 2).

On the other hand, support for charters among Democrats continues to remain at record lows. According to both the 2017 Education Next Poll and the UAS, only 45 percent of Democrats who have an opinion on charter schooling support them.

Still, support for charter schools is up among Black and Hispanic respondents. About 66 percent of Hispanics with an opinion on the issue indicate support for charter schools, while 68 percent of Black respondents hold the same position. These percentages based on the UAS represent double digit rebounds from the 2017 Education Next Poll, where 54 and 57 percent of Hispanic and Black respondents, respectively, expressed support for charter schooling. In fact, the proportion of Blacks who support charter schools has not been this high since 2013, eclipsing the steady decline in support that has occurred beginning that year.

Figure 3: Trends in Public Opinion on Charter Schools among Blacks and Hispanics

Note: The percentages shown are for those taking a side on the issue by saying they either “strongly” or “somewhat” supported the policy; those giving the neutral response —”neither support nor oppose”—are omitted. The solid line depicts data from the annual Education Next Poll. The dotted line depicts data from the 2017 end-of-year survey from the Understanding America Study. In the 2008 through 2012 Education Next Polls, the neutral category was placed as the middle option among five response categories. Beginning in 2013, the neutral category was placed as the fifth option, a change indicated in the figure with a vertical black line. The neutral category was also placed as a fifth option in the Understanding America Study. Trends that take place across the vertical black line could be due to this change in the survey’s design.

So what are we to make of this new polling? The charter school — like many other issues — is marked by partisanship. Such polarization continues to reflect a remarkable change since the inception of charter schooling when it enjoyed majority support from both Democrats and Republicans. Yet a coalition among Republicans and racial-minority communities remains a possibility. Time will tell how the politics surrounding the charter issue will continue to evolve.

Later this year, EdNext will be releasing new results based on its annual poll. So stay tuned.

— Albert Cheng and Paul E. Peterson

Albert Cheng is a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Program on education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Senior Editor of Education Next.




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