A Closer Look: Public Opinion on Charter Schools

Adam Berinsky The debate over the merits of public versus charter schools has been contentious in recent years. While the evidence on the performance of charter schools is mixed, the public has weighed in strongly in favor of charter schools. According to a poll conducted last year by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK), for the third year in a row, over two thirds of the American public favored the idea of charter schools. What are we to make of these results?

I am not an education scholar, but I am an expert in the study of opinion polls. Based on my readings, there are several reasons to think these poll results might better reflect diffuse opposition to government involvement in general, and not firm support for charter schools.

For one, this question reflects the responses of the full public – many of whom have no direct current experience with a school of any sort. In the 21012 PDK/Gallup survey, two thirds of respondents had no children in school. Experience with schools is certainly not a prerequisite to have an informed opinion, but it could be that the particular question asked by PDK stimulated a “top-of the head” response rather than a carefully formed opinion.

One thing we know from 75 years of public opinion polling is that if we ask people questions on surveys, they will answer them – regardless of their interest or knowledge about a particular issue. Political scientists have found that a great number of survey respondents will even answer questions about completely fictitious policies and programs. This is an extreme example, but we know that in the absence of direct experience with a given issue or controversy, survey respondents will look to the question wording to find cues to allow them to navigate an unfamiliar issue.

“Based on my readings, there are several reasons to think these poll results might better reflect diffuse opposition to government involvement in general, and not firm support for charter schools.”

PDK asked, “As you may know, charter schools operate under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools and permits them to operate independently. Do you favor or oppose the idea of charter schools?”

There are several cues in this question that might lead to an increased level of support for charter schools. “Regulation” has long been a dirty word in American politics. Thus anything that would “free” schools from regulation might be seen as a good thing, regardless of the merits of that alternative. In addition, the question does not ask about support for charter schools per se, but rather support for “the idea of charter schools” – a more abstract concept.

The results of the poll lend additional support for the idea that the charter school question might be picking up more generalized anti-government sentiment than real support for charter schools. On this question – like questions of economic policy and government regulation – there exists a large gap between Democrats and Republicans. While a bare majority of Democrats (54%) favor charter schools, 80 percent of Republicans express support for charters.

In sum, while it is true that large majorities of American express support for charter schools, further polling with better tailored questions needs to be conducted before we are sure that this support represents a considered opinion; for now, it seems more a transient belief.

Adam Berinsky is a Professor of Political Science at MIT. He studies the political behavior of ordinary citizens. While he is primarily concerned with questions of representation and the communication of public sentiment to political elites, he has also studied public opinion and foreign policy, the continuing power of group-based stereotypes, the effect of voting reforms, and the power of the media.


i really appreciate the perspective you lend to this discussion. i am not opposed to the IDEA of charter schools, per se, but i do oppose much of what i see implemented by charter schools regularly. you make some great points about biases that could arise from wording on the poll. thanks for your thoughts!

Posted @ Tuesday, April 23, 2013 2:33 PM by dana fitchett