Recently, PDK International released its annual poll of the public’s attitudes toward public schools, which, in its words, “finds Americans split on a range of fundamental issues in public education, including educational goals, standards, priorities and funding.” The data quickly prompted a lot of handwringing about whether Americans were “confused” about schools.
Someone is confused here for sure – but it’s not the American public. The results are puzzling only if you assume that they reflect wildly different opinions about the same educational experience. What if it actually reflects a country where families’ experiences of education are wildly different?
The sad truth is that we have, broadly speaking, two systems of public education in America. The first is the public education system that parents choose for their children. It’s populated by families who can afford to buy or rent property in a “good” school zone. Let’s call it the “Moved Here for Schools System.” Getting into it generally requires substantial disposable income; according to this 2015 RealtyTrac study, homes near good schools cost 95% more than other homes, on average. Most middle and upper-middle class families have chosen this school system.
The second public education system is the one that serves families who typically don’t have the means to choose where they live. Their children often attend schools where safety is rarely a given, where graduation rates lag, where there are few (if any) AP classes, and where resources and funding are perpetually scarce (and where there’s no well-funded PTA to offset such shortages). We’ll call this one the “No Other Option School System.”
If you live in the Moved Here for Schools System, you probably see things quite a bit differently than someone who lives in the No Other Option School System. We think the poll results show this clearly enough; for example, lower-income families (those with a household income less than $50,000 per year) are less likely to give their local schools high marks. Less than half (42%) give their local schools an A or B grade, compared to 57% of Americans with household incomes above $100,000 per year). This dissatisfaction colors their views on other issues. Those who grade their local schools “C” or worse are more likely to support more autonomy for charter schools, for instance, and those who give their local schools failing grades are twice as likely as those who give them an A to support school closures (26% vs 13%).
Context matters. If you’re a Moved Here for Schools family, chances are you’ve never been in a failing school and don’t know anyone else who has. Your schools are overwhelmingly NOT the schools that are being labeled as failing, and even if your school were to start struggling mightily, you wouldn’t wait around to know whether the school would be closed or if it would get new leadership or new teachers – you’d either move or pay for private school. For you, the question of whether and how struggling schools should be closed is a highly abstract one. The same is true for poll respondents who have school-aged kids versus those who don’t. Both perspectives are valid, but for the purposes of informing policy and practice, don’t we care more about the responses of people who actually have skin in the game?
For all the PDK poll’s attention to the divide among Americans about public schools, it seems to have strikingly little interest in clarifying or exploring the fault lines. The poll doesn’t make it easy to see how people respond differently to the various questions based on their socioeconomic status or whether they have children in school themselves. We hope PDK can provide more granular data on these and other trends so we can better understand what the results really mean, but for now the takeaway is the same one we have known for decades: Our biggest problem remains that we have two vastly different and unequal school systems. See? Not confusing at all.