Harris Poll: Education Political Driver for Parents Ahead of Midterm Elections

Survey showed vast majority would cross party lines to vote for candidate who shares their education agenda

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A survey of more than 5,000 parents released today found education ranks high among their concerns ahead of the critical midterm elections — and that 82% would vote for someone outside their party if the candidate’s education agenda matched their own.  

The survey was conducted electronically in May by The Harris Poll on behalf of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It was a follow-up to the Alliance’s own 2021 enrollment study, which noted charter schools’ growth during the pandemic. While traditional public schools lost more than 1.2 million students during the pandemic, charters gained nearly 240,000 children during the 2020-21 school year: Their enrollment grew 7%, the largest increase in half a decade.

The Alliance commissioned Harris to do subsequent polling, it said, to gain deeper insights into the parental “behaviors, experiences, preferences and attitudes” that were fueling this trend. Debbie Veney, senior vice president of communications and marketing, told The 74 last week that one result, in particular, surprised her.

“I was blown away by the number of people who said they were willing to vote outside their political party for someone having the same position on education they do,” Veney said.

The polling doesn’t shed light on what positions parents would like candidates to hold. 

But the pandemic has caused substantial shifts in how parents view education, making them more assertive about their own decision-making power in their children’s schooling. This has led to a rise in conservative parent groups and an increased interest in choice and alternative school models.

“While we can’t speak to the parent’s agenda or motivations, our research findings indicate that when it comes to children’s education, safety and quality of instructions are at the top of parents’ list, with 96% and 93% respectively, rating them as absolutely essential or very important,” said Anna Ginovker, vice president of research at Harris.

More than 4 in 5 respondents to the Harris poll said education has become a more important political issue to them than it was in the past: 2 in 5 strongly agreed with the assertion.

The Harris Poll

Among parents who vote in federal, state and local elections, education was second only to taxes when casting their ballot in state and local races, the survey showed. It ranked fourth, behind the economy, taxation, and health care, in federal elections. For the much smaller group of parents who only vote in state and local elections, education was also second, just behind the economy and ahead of health care.

The results reflected parents’ affinity for charter schools: Nearly 3 in 4 said they would consider sending their child to a charter if one were available in their area. The same amount would like more charter offerings nearby and support expanding the number of seats available in existing charter schools.

Results showed Black parents were particularly eager for an alternative to traditional public schools: 71% strongly agreed that “one size does not fit all when it comes to educating children.” 

Harris found 70% of Black parents and 63% of Hispanic parents strongly agreed that families should have a choice in where their children attend school. 

More specifically, 53% of Black parents and 40% of Hispanic parents strongly agreed they should have educational options outside their assigned or zoned district school.

The U.S. Department of Education is working on a new rule governing the $440 million federal Charter Schools Program that would give preference to charters that local school districts view as potential partners, while discouraging new applications in communities with voluntary integration efforts.

Charter supporters say it would make it more difficult to get charters approved in districts experiencing enrollment declines and the Alliance has said it would particularly harm single-site operators, often school leaders of color who are more dependent on federal funding. Nearly 65% of charter schools are single-site, it said. 

There were 7,547 charter schools in the United States in the 2019-20 school year, up from 4,952 a decade earlier.

Public charter school enrollment jumped from 1.6 million in fall 2009 to 3.3 million in fall 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At the same time, the organization reported, the number of students attending traditional public schools decreased by 400,000.

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