Poll shows that education is on the minds of Tennesseans

by Princine Lewis

Two-thirds of Tennesseans give public schools a C or lower, and they hold state government leaders accountable for raising that grade, according to a new poll conducted by the Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University.

The statewide poll, a telephone survey of 1,538 registered voters conducted Sept. 6-20, 2001, takes a look at several state issues -- tax reform, a lottery and voter satisfaction with state government -- against the backdrop of Tennessee's public education system.

"We wanted to generate some hard data on how voters perceive education in Tennessee. What we found is that a majority of voters agree that there are problems with the public education system, but they are unwilling to write what they think is the equivalent of a blank check to politicians by supporting an income tax," said Center for Education Policy Director James Guthrie.

Tennesseans expect the governor and the legislature to address their concerns about public education, with 58 percent of the survey respondents ranking education as one of state government's top responsibilities.

 

Here's a further look at the poll's results:

* Registered voters are aware of problems with the state's public education system. When asked to assign a letter grade, only 33 percent of voters give Tennessee public education an A or B with the rest of survey respondents rating the system at C or lower.

Of the more than 1,500 surveyed, 65 percent of respondents said they are willing to pay higher taxes, providing the money goes only for education. However, more than 53 percent oppose an income tax even as a means for funding public education.

* Voters are critical of the job Gov. Don Sundquist and the state legislature are doing to improve education.

Sixty percent of citizens disapprove of how Sundquist is addressing education in the state.

Sixty-four percent of citizens disapprove of how the state legislature is addressing education in the state.

* Voters are supportive of a state lottery -- 63 percent of the public favors this change in Tennessee law.

"Based on our findings, it's clear that Gov. Sundquist's support of an income tax has been politically costly, especially in contrast to his re-election victory of 69 percent just three years ago," Vanderbilt political science professor John Geer said.

"Voters' willingness to pay higher state taxes that are tied to improving public schools cuts across racial and income groups as well as across party lines," said Kenneth Wong, professor of public policy and education.

Polling was temporarily suspended following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and resumed on Sept. 12. However, analysis suggests that there were no appreciable differences in responses before and after Sept. 11.

An interdisciplinary team of faculty members at Vanderbilt designed and analyzed the poll. The team included professors Guthrie, Wong, Leonard Bradley and Thomas Smith in the Peabody College Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizational Studies, and political science professors Geer, Ben Radcliff and Geoffrey Layman.


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