Private schools and vouchers. Are these the magic bullets to transform - or annihilate - what some critics say is a monopolistic, bureaucratic, and ineffective public school system in America? The people do not think so. This is a central finding of the 1996 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. No matter how the question is asked, people oppose using tax money to support nonpublic schools. They also reject privatization of the basic instructional function of the schools, though they approve privatizing such ancillary services as transportation and maintenance. Moreover, the public flatly rejects the idea that the public schools should be replaced by a system of private and/or church-related schools.
While the public rates the local public schools as substantially less successful than their nonpublic counterparts, those closest to the situation - the parents of public school children - rate the public schools in their communities slightly higher than they rate the nonpublic ones.
Americans also believe that government and school leaders are committed to school improvement. This is especially true, they think, of public school teachers.
A summary of other major findings of the 1996 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll follows:
* Forty-three percent of people give their local public schools high marks, assigning them a grade of A or B, with almost eight in 10 giving them a C or higher. Two-thirds (66%) of parents assign a grade of A or B to the public school their oldest child attends.
* The importance the public attaches to its schools is reflected in the fact that people, by a margin of 64% to 25%, believe it is more important for the federal government to improve public education than to balance the federal budget.
* The public believes that the Democratic Party is more interested than the Republican Party in public school improvement and gives President Clinton more credit than the Republican Congress for school improvement. The public also believes that the Republican Party is more likely to take actions favorable to private schools than is the Democratic Party.
* People rate their local teachers highest in commitment to public school improvement, but they also give high marks to their school superintendents, school boards, governors, and legislators.
* If more money were available for public schools, then curriculum improvement, technology, and more teachers and staff would top the public's list of spending priorities.
* When the public is asked the purpose of the public schools, using an open-ended question, answers relating to economic self-sufficiency are most frequently given. However, when the public is asked about the purposes of the schools, aided by a list of potential purposes, "good citizenship" becomes the most frequent response.
* Eighty percent of the public believes it is important to provide the public schools with access to global electronic communications systems such as the Internet.
* As indicated in previous polls, the public has gradually come to accept the idea of a longer school day or year, with the 1993 survey showing for the first time slight majority support for lengthening the amount of time spent in school. The current poll shows that, while the public supports the idea for high school students by a wide margin, it is evenly divided on a longer school day or year for elementary school students.
* While 64% of respondents favor retaining compulsory attendance laws, a surprising 30% would eliminate them.
* Overwhelmingly, the public approves of racial mixing in the public schools, and larger percentages than in earlier polls express the belief that integration has improved the quality of education for blacks (61% to 27%). Although less than a majority (45%) think that integration has improved the quality of education for whites, the percentage who feel this way has doubled since the first survey on the subject in 1971. …