Education Issues a Priority for Voters in Upcoming Election
But poll demonstrates that 'school choice' advocates still face uphill struggle
BY William Murray
August 23-29, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/23/98 at 1:00 PM
The emergence of education as a leading issue in the November elections may be a mixed blessing for those who support enabling parents to use their tax money to send their children to the school of theirchoice. A poll by The Washington Post and ABC News showed that improving education was the single most important issue to a randomly selected group of more than 1,500 registered voters, according to a July 14 article in The Post.
Seventy-seven percent of those polled in early July called education a “very important” issue in their voting decisions this November. Protecting the Social Security system and handling the crime problem tied for second place at 68%.
The downside for school choice supporters is that 52% of respondents trust the Democrats to do a better job of improving education, while 33% preferred the Republicans.
At a time of peace and prosperity, Republican strategists want to make school choice a decisive issue in the fall, according to press reports. The poll may have underscored the Republicans’ need to educate Americans at the local and national level about school choice, as a means for expanding their base of support.
Many Americans consider the Democrats as very empathetic and concerned about issues effecting common people, said Quentin Quade, director of the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
The key polls in education are state-level, rather than national, since educational funding policy is primarily a function of state and local government, Quade said. He noted that many polls do a poor job of explaining what school choice involves.
As framed in many polls, school choice “seems to suggest added ‘public expense,’ over and above other tax expenditures,” wrote Quade in the Blum Center's The Education Freedom Report, Oct. 25, 1996.
School choice “need involve no new ‘public expense’ and whatever expense it does involve, new or reallocated, is not for ‘private schools’ but for parent empowerment,” he wrote in the editorial.
The Democrats promote the status quo on education, said one veteran Catholic educator.
Their concern with improving education is the “hype job the Democrats have pulled off,” said Father Peter Stravinskas, a professor at the Seton Hall University Graduate School of Education in South Orange, N.J.
The National Education Association and local public teachers’ unions are strong supporters of the Democrats. “Tens of thousands of jobs are involved,” in the Democrats opposing what he calls “parental freedom of choice in education,” Father Stravinskas said.
Rather than view the poll results negatively, a leading Catholic education official said they were good because they showed that a new generation of American parents view education as a decisive political issue. Polls such as the one conducted by The Post and ABC News show that the “aging ‘Baby Boomer’ generation is knowledgeable, engaged, and active in their kids’ education,” said Ray Burnell, the executive director of the U.S. Catholic Conference's National Coalition of Catholic Parents Association.
“They understand that equal access to education is closely linked to their child's well-being,” he said. The Catholic Parents Association Coalition is active in 26 states and on Capitol Hill, according to Burnell.
School choice is “about empowering parents to take care of the educational needs of their children,” Burnell told The Register. “It's not choosing a building, but a learning community and educational philosophy,” he said.
Currently, four million parents are choosing Catholic schools, but the vast majority receive no related tax relief. Nearly three million students go to Catholic schools, which employ 153,000 teachers.
The USCC advocates not only school choice, but also legislation that supports tutoring and help for special needs children, professional recruitment of teachers, and curriculum resources, such as technology, Burnell said.
Burnell and Father Stravinskas noted that support for school choice and other education reform is growing.
Four states provide some form of tax relief or incentive for parents with children in private schools: Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana and Minnesota. Two cities — Cleveland and Milwaukee — provide “opportunity scholarships” for eligible parents who send children to private or public schools of their choice. When he wrote his 1982 dissertation on education, “people were having their eyes put open by the inherent flaws in public education,”
Father Stravinskas said. Attitudes changed over time. “In the 1990s, the view is ‘it's not working; let's shut it down,” he said of public education.
Father Stravinskas admitted that his views — that Americans should eliminate government involvement in education — are “radical” in the eyes of some.
In the NEA's strategy, leaders speak about being prepared for when voucher programs occur, not if they occur, Father Stravinskas said. “Competition will put the public schools out of business,” he said.
At the grassroots level, Catholic parents said they have mixed feelings about school choice. The fact that their thoughts about education do not have much to do with school choice says something not only about the failure of school choice proponents to educate a broad audience but also about the role that Catholic education has for the new generation of Catholic parents.
“I would feel more at ease sending my kids to a Catholic school, but I'm not sure if we could afford it,” even with some tax relief, said Michelle Calabia of Silver Spring, Md.
Improving Catholic school teacher pay and making public schools safer are more prominent issues to her, said Calabia, who has three young children and recently quit her job teaching at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Bethesda, Md., after four years working there and winning the “teacher of the year” award in 1998.
Like Calabia, Dan Malloy of Bethesda, Md., thinks it's important that teachers be treated fairly and with respect while receiving a reasonable wage.
Citing a well-publicized problem with a District of Columbia charter school, Malloy said that reform initiatives such as vouchers need to be overseen by responsible authorities.
Establishing national standards for high school students and improving the quality of curriculum, materials and teachers are more important than school choice to Malloy, who sends his two children to public intermediate schools. Expressing concern with parents’ fixation on class size, he said the quality of a school has little to do with how many students attend.
Another Maryland Catholic public school parent expressed concern about safety in schools. “We believe there should be integration (but) it's almost at the point of being dangerous,” said George Fuster.
Fuster has two daughters, and the older would attend a high school in Germantown, Md., next year. He has heard that that some intermediate schools that feed students into the high school have gangs. As a result, he may send his older daughter to a Catholic high school that's a long distance away.
William Murray writes from Kensington, Maryland.
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