Several states that recently revised their charter school laws were among the 10 newest Race to the Top winners announced in the $4.35 billion grants competition, which favors charter school expansion among other reform initiatives. But despite the financial infusions offered to cash-starved states, the Obama Administration’s centerpiece education program earned less-than-overwhelming public approval in a new national poll just released by NCSC partners at Harvard. The poll also shows a sharp decline in popular support for school vouchers in recent years and continued support for charter schools, particularly among African Americans and Latinos.
Race to the Top is designed to encourage an array of education strategies endorsed by the federal government. While friendlier charter school policies appear to have been a plus in the latest round, they did not guarantee success. At least four winning states – Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island – pushed through laws to allow more charter schools this year in sometimes bruising legislative sessions. And Kentucky did not make the final cut after failing to pass a bill this year that would have allowed charters for the first time. But Louisiana was not chosen in this round of winners despite the rapid expansion of charter schools in New Orleans. Other strategies rewarded by the program include adopting higher academic standards and improved testing, basing teacher and principal evaluations on student achievement growth, targeting failing schools for turnaround, upgrading and expanding the use of data systems to improve academics and gaining signoff on plans from many stakeholders, including teachers unions, which have resisted some measures endorsed by the administration. Other winners in the second round are the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Ohio. The 10 winners will receive grants ranging from $75 million to $700 million. They join Delaware and Tennessee, the only two winners in the first round.
Race to the Top did garner more positive than negative reactions in the new opinion poll, conducted by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard and Education Next journal. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they considered the program “necessary to improve school quality” while 22 percent opposed it, saying it was an “unwarranted intrusion into state and local government.” However, almost half of respondents – 46 percent — expressed no opinion, despite the program’s fairly high exposure in the popular press. The poll was conducted in May and June.
The poll asked about many education issues, including some high-profile reforms. The decline in support for vouchers was striking. Approval dropped from 45 percent in 2007 to 31 percent this year, while disapproval grew from 34 percent to 43 percent. Support for charter schools, in contrast, rose from 42 percent in 2008 to 44 percent this year, while disapproval increased from 16 percent to 19 percent. Among black respondents, however, approval for charters rose from 42 percent to 64 percent and among Hispanics it rose from 37 percent to 47 percent.
One interesting detail about the poll, which covers a wide range of education issues, was that teachers disagreed with the general public on several issues. For example, teachers were less likely than the general public to support charter schools and their approval dropped from 47 to 39 percent since 2008. Similarly only 22 percent of teachers supported Race to the Top, while 46 percent opposed it. Teachers also disagreed with other respondents on merit pay. Support in the general public for “basing a teacher’s salary, in part, on his or her students’ academic progress on state tests” rose from 44 percent in 2007 to 49 percent in 2010 and opposition dropped from 32 to 25 percent. Among teachers, however, 63 percent opposed merit pay while only 24 percent supported it.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read about the PEPG/Education Next poll in previous years.