By Steve Gunn
MADISON, Wis. – A large majority of Wisconsin voters like the idea of expanding the state’s private school scholarship programs, according to the results of a new poll commissioned by EAGnews.org.
Residents also favor strong reform measures for the state’s 400-plus public school districts, including the use of letter grades to gauge school performance, the use of student growth data as part of teacher and principal job evaluations, and ridding the state of the “last in, first out” layoff rule for teachers.
In other results, a majority of respondents said they approve of Gov. Scott Walker’s job performance and the overall direction of the state. A slight plurality expressed support for the governor’s public sector labor union reforms.
Those are important numbers from an education perspective, because Walker has been leading the charge to curtail the power of the state’s teacher unions, improve public schools and expand school choice.
A total of 500 likely voters from throughout the state were questioned by telephone for the poll, which was conducted Jan. 6-7 by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Virginia.
Forty-six percent of respondents identified themselves as political independents. Twenty-nine percent said they were Democrats, while 24 percent said they were Republicans. The poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 4.38.
Citizens value choice in education
Perhaps the most significant finding, when it comes to education, was the support expressed for the state’s private school scholarship programs.
The programs, currently limited to Milwaukee and Racine, provide taxpayer-funded scholarships for students of a certain income range to attend their school of choice, including participating private and religious schools.
When asked if they favored expansion of the scholarship programs “to allow every Wisconsin child to attend the public or private (including religious) schools of their choice,” 61 percent of respondents expressed some level of support.
Using alternative language to double-check the public mood, POS asked respondents if they opposed “eliminating Wisconsin’s parental school choice program which allows some parents to use taxpayer dollars to send their child to the public or private school, including religious schools, of their choice.”
A total of 58 percent of respondents said they would oppose the elimination of the scholarship programs.
The state teachers unions have long fought the existence of the scholarship programs. They claim they violate the constitutional separation of church and state by allowing state resources to find its way to religious schools in the form of tuition. They also argue that private school scholarships steal money from public schools.
The public obviously sees things differently.
“The poll results show that Wisconsin citizens value choice and competition in education,” said Kyle Olson, publisher of EAGnews.org. “They also show that the people believe students, regardless of race or economic background, deserve the same type of high-quality education that wealthier people can afford.
“The unions, the education establishment and their apologists, who want to keep kids trapped in a lot of failing traditional schools, are clearly on the wrong side of public opinion.”
Solid majorities want education reform
Strong majorities of respondents also expressed support for several public school reform concepts.
These results could help provide a roadmap for Walker and Republican lawmakers as they plan their educational agenda for the new legislative session.
For instance, 80 percent supported the idea of having the state assign traditional letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) to schools, based on their academic performance.
Seventy-two percent supported the idea of using student performance data to evaluate teachers and principals and compensating those employees based on their performance.
A huge 85 percent majority supported the idea of dumping the “last in, first out” layoff policy for public school teachers in favor of a system that bases layoffs on performance.
Respondents had mixed views on the performance of Wisconsin public schools. Sixty-two percent gave their local school districts a grade of “A” or “B” on performance, but only 51 percent said public schools across the state deserve such a grade.
The main difference came in Milwaukee County, where only 32 percent of respondents gave their public schools an “A” or “B” and 30 percent assigned those grades to all Wisconsin public schools.
The state teacher unions, the main defenders of the educational status quo, drew only marginal support from poll respondents. While 97 percent of respondents said they are aware of teacher unions, 46 percent reported having a “totally favorable” opinion of them while 40 percent had a “totally unfavorable” view.
When asked specifically about the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest and most powerful teacher union, 28 percent had a “totally favorable” opinion while 22 percent had a “totally unfavorable” view.
While school choice and public school reform seem to be unifying themes across the state, teacher unions appear to have a divisive and polarizing effect on the public.
Walker’s approval numbers are significant
Walker’s job approval rating, and the growing public acceptance of his controversial union reforms, are also significant.
The nation remembers the spring of 2011, when thousands of angry union members camped out at the state capitol in Wisconsin to protest the passage of Act 10.
The new law, pushed through by Walker and GOP majorities in both houses of the legislature, limited the scope of collective bargaining for most public sector employee unions.
The law allowed public schools to gain control over runaway labor costs and save millions of dollars to help offset state cuts in school funding.
The unions, of course, were furious. A group of the largest unions, including the Wisconsin Education Association Council, launched a major effort to recall Walker from office. That effort failed when Walker won the recall election last summer.
In the EAGnews.org poll, 55 percent of respondents expressed some level of approval for Walker’s job performance while 44 percent disapproved.
Fifty-one percent of respondents said the state is headed in the “right direction” while 42 percent said it’s on the “wrong track.” Seven percent expressed no opinion.
Respondents also approved of Walker’s union reforms by a razor-thin 46-45 percent margin, while 9 percent said they didn’t know or refused to share an opinion.