Education: America's No. 1 Priority: Polls Show That We Value Education above All Else

Article excerpt

Four years ago, the Public Education Network and Education Week began a series of annual public opinion polls to find out more about what public education means to our society and what we can do as voters, citizens, taxpayers and public officials to ensure quality education for all young people.

Today, most Americans continue to believe that education is what Horace Mann called "the great equalizer" and the "balance wheel of society." They believe that schools can be the engine of opportunity for all young people. Public schools are the heart of our communities, according to our previous polls, more important than places of worship, hospitals and other public spaces. Broad sectors of society--old and young, Republicans and Democrats, parents and nonparents--recognize the value of education in creating healthy communities, bringing good jobs and ensuring a promising future for our nation.

We polled 1,050 voting-age Americans in January 2003. Despite tough economic times and global uncertainty, they said once again that strengthening public education remains their top priority. Republicans, as well as Democrats, rated education as more important than terrorism, tax cuts, Social Security stability, health care, war and creating new jobs. Even those who oppose the federal No Child Left Behind Act put education at the top of their agenda.

Not only is support for education broad across virtually all constituencies, Americans want all children to succeed, not just their own. This is a clear shift from the mood several years ago when people seemed to view everything as a private good. Most Americans believe that everyone deserves a good education and that all children should go to schools that are adequately funded, promote high standards and have highly qualified teachers.

Our poll indicates that Americans are deeply concerned about state finances and their effect on communities. Most Americans believe that budget cuts are already having a serious or somewhat serious consequence on their communities.

Recognizing the need for austerity, voters still want to protect education. When respondents were asked an open-ended question about which one or two items they want to see protected from state budget cuts, education topped their lists of priorities. They say education is more important to protect than other important items such as health care/Medicare/Medicaid, retirement and law enforcement/fire protection. And education is the only area that a majority of respondents want to see protected.

Those polled are particularly concerned about cuts in teacher salaries, preparation and professional development; the possibility of raising class size; and cuts in early childhood education.

The poll probed the public's attitudes about the role tax policy can play in addressing the large shortfalls. We asked whether people were more concerned about tax increases or cuts in services. Respondents said by 2 to 1 that they are more concerned about cuts. Both Democrats and Republicans share this concern. If pressed, respondents say, they would even be willing to pay new taxes if that money were put into a special trust earmarked only for education.

We also wanted to learn more about public attitudes toward the No Child Left Behind Act. Generally, the public strongly supports the law and its approach to ensure standards and accountability and raise teacher quality. But what's interesting is that three-fourths of voters recognize that it will cost more money to meet the law's objectives. By a 2 to 1 margin, the public says that the federal government, not the state or local governments, should take the lead in ensuring that schools have the necessary resources to comply with the law.

Moreover, respondents are so strongly focused on the federal government's responsibility to ensure adequate funding that they say they would--by a 2 to 1 margin--vote against their U. …