As confidence in public schools hits a record low, Americans place renewed focus on education reform

Over the last few weeks, leaders from President Obama to Bill Gates have offered proposals and ideas to strengthen public schools, ranging from providing universal access to pre-school to reforming the teacher evaluation system.  The renewed focus on education should come as no surprise, as Americans have grown increasingly concerned about the state of our public schools over the last few years and rate improving education as a top policy priority for 2013.

In a January 2013 Gallup survey, more than half (56{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans indicate that they are dissatisfied with the quality of public education (41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} satisfied).  In fact, the number of adults who say they are very dissatisfied with the public education system (29{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) is almost triple the number who are very satisfied (11{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).  A June 2012 Gallup survey reinforces this finding, as just one-in-three (29{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) adults say they have confidence in the public school system.   This marks the lowest rating schools have received in the nearly four decades Gallup has been tracking this question.


The growing concern about the state of public schools is reflected in Americans’ policy priorities for the year.  In a January 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, seven-in-ten (70{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) adults say that improving education should be a top priority, up five points from last year (65{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and nine points (61{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) since President Obama took office in 2009.  This finding holds true across the political spectrum with majorities of Republicans (64{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), Independents (68{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and Democrats (80{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) saying this issue should be addressed in 2013.

The January 2013 NBC-Wall Street Journal offers similar evidence about Americans’ priorities.  When asked which kinds of issues leaders in Washington should deal over the next few years, 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of adults select a “greater emphasis on the education system.”  Education ranks ahead of goals including providing better access to healthcare (33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), more personal freedom/less government (30{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), improved moral standards/values (23{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), reducing violence (16{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), more regulation/oversight of corporations (12{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and greater equality/opportunities for women (7{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).

As the table below shows, the focus on education cuts across many key sub-groups including ethnicity and education.  And, as our leaders look to 2014 and beyond, it is important to note that many voter groups – including younger Americans, Hispanics, suburban residents, and Independents – place this issue at the top of their list of priorities. Education Table

Despite the growing concern about education quality and the desire to see it as a top policy priority, Americans are still inclined to approve of the way President Obama is dealing with the issue.  In a CNN/Time/ORC International poll conducted in January of this year, 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of adults approve of the way he is handling education, compared to 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} who disapprove.   In fact, education is one of the top-scoring areas for the President, ranking second on the list of fifteen issues tested.  Only time will tell if President Obama will be able to maintain his positive ratings on this issue or if Americans will eventually hold him responsible for the state of the country’s public schools.



Public Opinion Strategies