Usingpublicmoney2
What Americans say about…

Using public money to support private schools

Substantially more Americans oppose than support school vouchers.

Substantially more Americans oppose rather than support school vouchers. But the size of that margin depends on how the question is posed, and intentions to use a voucher system depend on how much tuition it covers. 

Twenty times since 1993, PDK surveys have asked: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” Asked again this year, 52% of Americans oppose the idea while 39% are in favor, a 13-point gap.

Web  Pdk  Poll 2017  C2  Table1

However, this year’s survey also included a more detailed question: “Some people say public funds should be used only to pay for public schools that offer tuition-free education for all students. Others say parents should be able to direct some public funds to any school their child attends, whether public, private, or religious. This would cover the full cost of public school or the partial cost of private or religious schools.”

Given this description, 61% prefer a system that funds public schools only vs. 34% support for the voucher option, a broader 27-point gap. Further, when told that a voucher system either could help public schools by making them compete or hurt them by reducing their funding, preference for only funding public schools rises to 67%, compared to 26% support for vouchers, a 41-point gap.

The striking difference in the two main questions is not chiefly informed by a sense that vouchers would make public schools worse; only 21% hold this view, while 34% think they’d make them better, and 37% expect no effect. (That said, support for vouchers, naturally, is lowest among those who say they would make public schools worse and highest among those who say they’d make them better.) Instead, increased opposition appears to relate to including religious schools in the more detailed question. The first question only mentions using public funds for private schools, while the second version references funding private or religious schools. As detailed below, opposition to vouchers increases most sharply with the new wording among non-Christians. 

The role of cost

The results suggest that if cost were not an issue, public schools would lose students. In that hypothetical, 34% of parents say they would send their child to a public school, but 31% would choose a private school, 17% a charter school, and 14% a religious school. 

In response to a separate question, a slim majority of public school parents (54%) say that if they had a choice to send their child to a private or religious school using public funds, they would still send their child to a public school. But, of course, cost is a factor: If the voucher were to cover just half of private or religious school tuition, then the proportion of parents who say they would stick with public schools rises to 72%. Local school quality also matters. In statistical modeling, public school parents who give higher grades to local schools are less likely to send a child to a nonpublic school when only half-tuition coverage is provided.  

A deeper dive

There are profound differences among groups in views on school vouchers. Political partisanship and ideology are key factors, as are ratings of the quality of local public schools. And mentioning that religious schools would be eligible for voucher funding brings religious identity strongly into the mix. 

When only funding for private schools is mentioned, Christians and non-Christians react similarly, with 52% and 51% opposing vouchers, respectively. In the question noting that vouchers would fund both private and religious schools, views among Christians are similar (opposed by 56%), while 73% of non-Christians oppose the practice. (Non-Christians comprise 32% of the adult population in this survey, including 26% with no religious affiliation and 6% with a different religious identity.)

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In terms of partisanship and ideology, support for using public funds for private schools is 15 points higher among Republicans than Democrats, and 17 points higher among conservatives than liberals. These gaps increase to 24 and 26 points, respectively, in the more detailed question. 

Views across the two questions hold essentially stable among Republicans and conservatives, while opposition rises sharply among Democrats, independents, liberals, and moderates. The shifts are striking: Preference for funding public schools only rises from a 27- to a 41-point margin among Democrats, from an 8- to a 32-point margin among independents, from a 33- to a 49-point margin among liberals and from a 10- to a 35-point margin among moderates. 

Again, religion seems to be a key factor: Republicans and conservatives are more apt than other Americans to be Christians, by 27 points compared with Democrats and 22 points compared with liberals. In statistical modeling controlling for other demographic characteristics and selected attitudes, including partisanship and ideology, being a non-Christian is significantly associated with opposition to vouchers when religious schools are mentioned but not in the question that references only private schools. Being a non-Christian is significantly associated with opposition to vouchers when religious schools are mentioned but not when only private schools are included. 

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Reactions also differ by factors such as race/ethnicity, income, age, and urban status. Nonwhites split evenly on vouchers when only private schools are mentioned but oppose them by a 27-point margin when religious schools are included. Whites are about equally negative in both cases, by 20- and 27-point margins, respectively. 

The margin of opposition to vouchers grows by 38 points among young adults and by 14 points among people in less-than-$100,000 households using the more detailed question, while holding essentially steady among seniors and among top-income Americans. 

Parents who would send their child to a traditional public school or a public charter school even if a voucher program were available are more likely to support using public funds for public schools only (67%). By contrast, and not surprisingly, those who would send their child to a private or religious school are less likely to favor using public funds only for public schools (45%).  

The Questions

  1. Q. On another subject, do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?
  2. Q. I have a question about four types of schools. One is traditional public schools. Another is charter schools, which are publicly funded but run outside of the public school system. The third is parochial or religious schools. And the fourth is private schools. Imagine you could send your child to any one of these four kinds of schools, and cost and location were not an issue. All things equal, which would you pick . . . public, charter, religious, or private?
  3. Q. As far as you are aware, are there any charter, religious, or private schools in your community where your child could go or not?
  4. Q. I have a question about how public funds for education should be spent. Some people say public funds should be used only to pay for public schools that offer tuition-free education for all students. Others say parents should be able to direct some public funds to any school their child attends, whether public, private, or religious. This would cover the full cost of public school or the partial cost of private or religious school. Which of these do you prefer?
  5. Q. Some say allowing public funds to go to any school would improve public schools by making them more competitive; others say this would hurt public schools by reducing their funding. Given those views, which do you prefer?
  6. Q. Say parents in your community could use public funds to send their children to either public, private, or religious schools. Public schools would receive funding only for students who continue to attend them. Do you think this would make your local public schools better, make them worse, or make no difference in their quality?
  7. Q. If you were offered public funds to send your child in public school to a private or religious school instead, do you think you probably would keep them in public school, or would you probably send them to a private school or to a religious school?
  8. Q. What if the money this program made available paid no more than half of the private or religious school tuition, and you had to make up the rest — in that case do you think you probably would keep your child in public school, or would you probably send them to a private or religious school?

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