Politics & Policy

Poll’s in The Words

Phi Delta Kappa needs to reword their voucher poll.

We hold these truths to be ordinary.

Doesn’t quite pack the same punch as “We hold these truths to be self-evident” does it?

Fortunately for us, Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished wordsmith. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the annual Phi Delta Kappa / Gallup Poll of Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools released on August 25, 2004.

One word makes a difference to public opinion and allows negative connotations to seep into documents meant to inform the public. That’s exactly what happened in the PDK poll. As expected, it showed that the general public does not support school vouchers–42 percent supported the idea.

Why was it expected?

For years, the word selection in the poll’s school-voucher question has been disputed. There have been rumblings that some of the connotation works to artificially lower support for school choice.

These rumblings prompted the Milton and Rose D. Friedman to carry out a study of its own to explore the potential of bias in the PDK poll. Conducted by leading research firm WirthlinWorldwide, the study, using a sound research methodology of a split-sample format, asked half of the participants the PDK question, while the other half was asked a more neutral school-voucher question.

Only a few words were changed.

For example, the PDK question asks, “do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” The Friedman Foundation question read, “do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?”

Did the results raise questions of potential bias? We’ll let you draw your own conclusion.

The Friedman Foundation question netted support from 63 percent of Americans. The PDK question resulted in support from 41 percent. By changing only a few words, but keeping the meaning the same, support rose over 20 percent.

Also of interest is a second question in the PDK poll that asks respondents at which type of school they would use a voucher that covered the full cost of tuition. Amazingly, 57 percent of Americans would select a private or parochial school, compared to only 38 percent who would select a public school. To summarize, one question shows that only 42 percent support vouchers, but another shows that if 57 percent had a voucher they’d choose a nonpublic school.

Whether or not it proves bias, it does show that the PDK numbers should not be taken at face value.

For instance, look beyond this direct challenge to the PDK wording and review any number of polls conducted by NBC News, Wall Street Journal, Zogby International, CNN, USA Today and various universities. You will find that support is much higher than PDK’s poll shows.

In fact, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 69 percent of its respondents agreed with the idea that parents should get tax-funded vouchers to help pay for tuition for their children to attend private or religious schools instead of public schools. Unsurprising, that same year, the PDK poll found that only 34 percent of Americans favored choosing a private school at the public expense.

It seems it may be time for PDK to reevaluate its school-voucher questions; this wouldn’t be a first.

Stanford professor Terry Moe pointed out in a 2002 EducationNext article that through the 1970s to 1991, PDK used a question that portrayed vouchers as a government-financed program that allowed parents to choose among public, private, and parochial schools.

“By 1991 public support for vouchers had risen to 50 percent (with 39 percent opposed) on this measure–whereupon it was unceremoniously dumped by PDK in favor of a new question,” he wrote. “This one asked, ‘Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?’ The findings from this new measure were–surprise!–astonishingly more negative. In 1991 it yielded a support level of just 26 percent; in 1993, an abysmal 24 percent.”

Support for school vouchers reaches an all-time high. The next year the question is changed and support plummets.

Thomas Jefferson obviously (or ordinarily) understood the impact one word could have in influencing public opinion.

Does PDK?

Robert C. Enlow is executive director of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

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