Academic journal article Education Next

Responsible Polling: Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Poll Respond to Claims That Their Poll Artificially Depresses the Public's Support for School Vouchers. (Check the Facts)

Academic journal article Education Next

Responsible Polling: Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Poll Respond to Claims That Their Poll Artificially Depresses the Public's Support for School Vouchers. (Check the Facts)

Article excerpt

The issue that Terry Moe raises in his article "Cooking the Questions" in the Spring 2002 issue of Education Next concerns Phi Delta Kappa's interpretations of findings from the 2001 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward education. In a press release, Phi Delta Kappa concluded, "It is clear that the decade of the '90s saw support for the use of public funds for parents and students to use in attending private and church-related schools increase, peak, and then begin what has become a significant decline:' This conclusion was based on responses to the following questions:

* "Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?"

* "A proposal has been made that would allow parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school they choose. For those parents choosing nonpublic schools, the government would pay all or part of the tuition. Would you favor or oppose this proposal in your state?"

The first question was asked in 1993, repeated in 1995, and then repeated each year thereafter. The percentages in favor of public subsidies for private schooling have been:

 
1993  24% 
1995  33% 
1996  36% 
1997  44% 
1998  44% 
1999  41% 
2000  39% 
2001  34% 

The second question was first asked in 1994, repeated in 1996, and repeated each year thereafter. The percentages in favor of public subsidies for private schooling have been:

 
1994  45% 
1996  43% 
1997  49% 
1998  51% 
1999  51% 
2000  45% 
2001  44% 

Moe refers to the first question as "biased," while he finds the second one "actually informative and neutral, precisely the kind of item that should have been used all along." He challenges the trend documented in the first question, but fails to note that the second question reflects precisely the same trend. It could just as easily have been used as the basis of Phi Delta Kappa's conclusion in its press release that support for vouchers increased, peaked, and then began a significant decline during the 1990s. The most interesting thing about Moe's challenge, however, is that it was not raised by voucher advocates during the period from 1993 through 1998, when support for vouchers as measured by both questions was climbing steadily. They were, in fact, pointing to this poll and these questions as evidence that vouchers were gaining support. It was only when support stabilized and then began to decline that the complaints started.

It is, of course, nor surprising that there are differing interpretations of poll data on a topic as emotionally charged as vouchers. Terry Moe, an avowed advocate of vouchers, would be expected to look with skepticism on poll results that indicate a decline in public support for them. Phi Delta Kappa, as an organization committed to the public schools, would be expected to view the decline positively. This does not mean that Phi Delta Kappa cannot and does not conduct a poll that is fair and unbiased. Phi Delta Kappa did, in fact, routinely report and comment accurately on the data during the period when support for choosing a private school to attend "at public expense was increasing. And, regarding the validity of the poll's findings, Phi Delta Kappa finds some measure of confirmation in the fact that its data could have been used to predict the recent defeats of voucher proposals in both California and Michigan. Having said that, we would quickly acknowledge that results from a random sample in an opinion survey are not comparable to results in an election in which those expressing an opinion do so by choice.

Moe's concern with the first of the poll questions above is that it fails to convey to respondents the "central purpose" of a voucher program, that being "to expand the choices available to all qualifying parents, especially those who now have kids in public schools. …

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