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Surprise, Trump's Education Ideas Are Polarizing

In the last year, there's been a big drop in support for charter schools, while other forms of school choice are getting a little less unpopular. That's the top line of a national poll released today.

President Trump and his education secretary Betsy DeVos have put school choice front and center on their education agenda. The general idea of "choice," however, takes many forms.

Charter schools are paid for by tax dollars, charge no tuition and are managed independently of public school districts.

Vouchers allow students to use tax dollars to pay tuition at private schools.

Tax-credit scholarships, now available in 17 states, which allow individuals and companies to get a tax credit for donating to scholarship funds that are used in turn for private school tuition.

U.S. opinion on these ideas seems to be shifting, according to a new poll from EducationNext, an opinion and policy journal associated with free-market education reform ideas. They've been asking similar questions for the past decade.

Here are the latest results:

  • Charters: Last year 51 percent of the public supported "the formation of charter schools"; this year it's just 39 percent, a 12 point drop in one year.
  • Vouchers: 45 percent are either strongly or somewhat supportive of universal vouchers. That's a bounce from last year, but more or less in line with the five years before.
  • Tax credits: This was the most popular form of school choice with 55 percent of the general public supporting this year; also a one-year bounce, but in line with longer-term trends.

There's no one obvious explanation for the change in opinion on charter schools. The drop was seen among both Democrats and Republicans and amongst all racial and ethnic groups.

"That's the largest change on any survey item, and one of the largest single-year changes in opinion that we've seen over the 11-year history of the survey," Martin West, the editor in chief of EducationNext, said on a press conference call.

The wording of the question — about the formation of charter schools — may hold a clue. In theory, it might be possible to have very positive feelings about the charter schools currently in your community, yet still oppose new ones.

And the expansion of charters is exactly what communities around the country have been fighting over.

Last year the NAACP and Black Lives Matter called for a moratorium on the growth of charter schools (the NAACP called more recently for a ban on for-profit management of these schools). The state of Massachusetts saw a bruising fight over its charter cap. Detroit's proliferation of charters has been labeled "a glut" and "chaos." And charter expansion was the central issue in the school board race in Los Angeles, one of the biggest public school districts in the country.

The nationally representative poll breaks down respondents by political party, and there's a clear partisan divide on many issues, even as public opinion shifts. Last year, for example, 57 percent of Democrats favored universal vouchers, against 45 percent of Republicans. This year they've switched places: 62 percent of Republicans like them and only 50 percent of Democrats agree.

Zeroing in on that political divide, pollsters also measured what they called the "Trump effect." That is, how do responses change when some people are told that the president supports or opposes a particular issue?

They found that self-identified Republicans are more likely to support an issue if they are informed that Trump also supports it, while Democrats are the opposite. However, Trump's net influence is nearly nil, which makes him less of a force than President Obama was in this poll in 2009. Back then, when respondents on all sides were told the new President supported an education issue, they were more likely to back it, by double digits.

This poll, then, serves as a snapshot of what some have called the breakdown of a long-standing bipartisan consensus on education that dated back to No Child Left Behind.

Still, there is one enduring issue where blue- and red-state opinions are near-identical: approval of the local public schools. 55 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Democrats give local schools a B or an A.

Copyright NPR 2017.

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