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A majority of registered voters are dissatisfied with the performance of the elementary and secondary education system in this country, according to a detailed new survey. Moreover, Americans have little confidence that public schools will improve any time soon.

These were among the findings in a RealClear Opinion Research poll of 2,014 registered voters about their views and expectations of K-12 education. Conducted Sept. 20-24, this is the fifth in a series of surveys delving into Americans’ attitudes on core national questions ranging from the resonance of “the American Dream” to the U.S. health care system to the costs and benefits of global trade.

“Looking ahead on education, few people are optimistic about the future,” said John Della Volpe, who designed and directed the poll. “Only about one in 10 voters believe America’s K-12 education will be a model of excellence by 2040.”

Despite these anxieties, Della Volpe added, education has not been front-and-center in the unfolding presidential campaign. When the topic has arisen on the campaign trail, it is usually higher education that the 2020 candidates are discussing. This suggests the political class is out of touch with rank-and-file voters in both parties. While the political discourse often revolves around how K-12 education can best prepare students for college, this goal was third-to-last on the RealClear Opinion Research list of 15 priorities, at only 48%. In fourth place, at 72%, was “Enter the Workforce,” which suggests that policymakers who ignore vocational education are missing the boat.

So what do Americans want most from the public schools that educate young people from the time they enter kindergarten at age 5 to when graduate from high school around voting age? The top three priorities were “Read and write” (84%); “Be good citizens” (76%); “Stay safe from violence and physical harm” (75%).

But if public policy priorities are as simple to ordinary voters as learning your ABCs, politics is rarely so straightforward. The beginning of the 2019 school year coincided with a presidential campaign kicking into high gear, along with a competition among Democratic contenders over using federal funds to subsidize everything from universal preschool and K-12 teacher salaries to free community college and canceling student debt for grad students.

Meanwhile, for different reasons, President Trump asserts that America’s elementary and secondary education systems are “falling behind the rest of the world.” His administration has embraced an agenda that would expands school choice for parents,  streamline and cap student aid, and hold institutions of higher learning “more accountable to students and taxpayers alike.”

Political battle lines on this subject are not new. Education has been a buzzword in presidential politics for a long time. How long? Well, the first denizen of the White House to be portrayed by his loyalists as “the education president” wasn’t George H.W. Bush or his son -- although both championed the cause -- or even Jimmy Carter, who midwifed the creation of the Department of Education. It wasn’t even James A. Garfield, although that moniker has been applied to him, or Millard Fillmore, who founded a state university and served as its chancellor. It was probably Thomas Jefferson, who would appreciate that civics education ranked fourth on the RealClear Opinion Research poll. “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free,” he wrote in an 1816 letter, “it expects what never was & never will be.”

No Partisan Divide – in the Grassroots

In modern U.S. politics, nearly every subject, from presidential impeachment to the National Football League, has a partisan component to it. Yet when it comes to Americans’ perceptions of educational quality, the partisan differences are nearly negligible.

Asked to evaluate U.S. elementary and secondary education, most Democrats ranked it “only fair” (38%) or “poor” (17%) -- with just 9% answering “excellent.” These percentages were almost identical for Republicans -- and only slightly different for independents, who assessed the schools a bit lower. There were some generational variations in the answers, but in the main Americans’ views of the educational system are not dependent on their politics.

But this like a good news/bad news joke: The good news being that Americans judge K-12 education on its merits, rather than through the prism of political talking points. The bad news is that they don’t rate the schools’ performance very highly.

“One of a few areas that Democrats and Republicans can agree on these days are their views related to the state of education in the United States,” noted Della Volpe. “It’s not good. Fifty-one percent of Republicans and 55% of Democrats rate American education as ‘only fair’ or ‘poor.’”

While Americans’ views of their local schools are higher than the school system in the abstract, the rise in satisfaction shouldn’t completely warm educators’ hearts. A majority of respondents do rate their local schools as “excellent” (13%) or “good” (39%), but the percentage who rank them “only fair” was 28% -- with 15% answering “poor.” Even more disquieting, the strongest predictor of high confidence is income: Households with incomes of more than $150,000 (35%) are 3½ times more likely to rate their schools as excellent compared to households with incomes of less than $50,000 (10%). Since property taxes remain a key source of school funding, this suggests that schools in well-off communities and neighborhoods tend to get the highest votes of confidence.

This disparity, called “education equity” in the profession, has generated interest from several 2020 Democrats. The candidate who has spoken most directly to this issue is California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has proposed using federal funds to significantly boost teacher pay.

“You can judge a society by the way it treats its children,” Harris said while unveiling her proposal in late May. “And one of the greatest expressions of love that a society can give its children is educating those children with the resources they need. Teachers are our greatest resource in that endeavor.”

Joe Biden responded with a plan of his own that would triple federal spending on schools in low-income neighborhoods. “You’re expected to be a social worker,” Biden told members of a teachers’ union. “You’re expected to be a counselor,” he added. “You’re expected to be the person who is the person of last resort.”

School Safety

The prevalent fear of violence was one of the most bracing findings of the RealClear poll. The fears of parents and students range from kids being bullied at school to being forced into gangs or coerced into using drugs. The list of schools that suffered massacres are etched into our memories: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, Santa Fe.

But the anxieties go far beyond mass shootings. School assemblies in high crime areas often turn into memorial services, which is what happened recently Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., where students and educators spent part of a recent pep rally mourning a freshman who had been gunned down three days earlier. 

That sort of carnage rarely happens at school, but it adds to a sense among parents that they lose the ability to protect their children once they leave home in the morning. In Chicago, 60 children younger than 16 were shot in the first six months of last year. Students and their parents pray that they’ll survive going to and coming from school. “These kids can't live, they can't play, they can't do nothing,” lamented the relative of one young victim.

Although the nation’s political system has yet to coalesce around a nonpartisan answer to violence against school-age kids, the feelings of despair are nearly universal. In a July 30 interview with C-SPAN White House correspondent Steve Scully, Donald Trump was asked about his most difficult day since taking office. His answer: school shootings.

“It frustrates everybody,” Trump said. “You say, ‘How could a thing like this happen?' How is it possible when you see innocent children being killed – teachers -- that’s something that you just never can really get over.”

Expectation Gaps 

If kids don’t feel safe at the school -- and their parents don’t feel secure sending them there -- this is an indictment against America’s civil society, not just the schools. But on many of these other issues, deep chasms have emerged between what voters want from schools and what they are getting. Some of that gap definitely falls under the purview of the education sector. 

For instance, 84% of Americans believe the educational system is obliged to teach reading and writing. Yet only 46% of respondents believe the schools are adequately handling that responsibility. Huge gaps also exist on helping students “be good citizens,” “entering the workforce,” and having “knowledge of American history.”

Closing these gaps, in both perception and reality, is a defining challenge for the education establishment -- and the political establishment. 

“What other industry is so vital, yet so poorly regarded in the minds of voters?” said Della Volpe. “We would not stand for a defense, technology, or biotech industry that performs so poorly, with such lowly prospects for excellence. But, in 2019, we seem content to turn our back and not demand more from ourselves and our candidates for president when it comes to education.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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