Poll: School Safety Is Main Concern for California Voters, but College Affordability Tops List for Parents

Teen students take a tour of the University of Southern California. (Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

School safety and college affordability are the most pressing issues in education, California voters said in a new poll.

The top priority overall was reducing gun violence in schools, with more than half of respondents saying it was “very important.” But voters with children as well as those ages 18-49 and those earning less than $35,000 a year rated college affordability as more important. The annual poll, conducted since 2012, was led by researchers at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and the independent research group Policy Analysis for California Education.

“This poll sends an unmistakable message from voters to policymakers: Do something about gun violence,” Karen Symms Gallagher, USC Rossier’s dean, said in a statement. “We have the means and the expertise to prevent future tragedies, including through the improvement of social and emotional health. This is some of the most important work that policymakers can do, if they can put in the time and energy the public wants them to.”

1 Overall, reducing gun violence in schools is the key issue for the most Californians.

Although the chances of a student being shot at school are extremely small, 56 percent of people polled rated reducing gun violence at schools as a 10 on a 10-point scale, meaning “very important.” The next most important item was college affordability, which 45 percent rated a 10. (The survey asked voters to rate each issue by importance, not rank them.)

Since last February’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, school violence and how to prevent it have dominated headlines. Some observers have said the emotional pull of such events causes them to play an outsize role in policymaking.

Respondents overwhelmingly support increasing public mental health options, having more active shooter drills in schools, and installing metal detectors in schools.

Generally, voters oppose arming teachers, with 63 percent saying they somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the idea, though opinion was split on party lines — 55 percent of Republicans and just 19 percent of Democrats support the idea. Democrats were more likely to support banning and confiscating assault rifles or other high-capacity firearms (81 percent, vs. 50 percent of Republicans).

2 With strikes looming large, most Californians support teachers’ right to strike.

The poll was conducted Jan. 3-9, a few days before Los Angeles teachers launched a six-day strike. A majority (64 percent) of Californians polled said they support teachers’ right to strike, while 24 percent said they opposed it. Support was slightly higher (67 percent) when the question included the idea that teachers strike “to demand better compensation and benefits.”

Source: Tulchin Research

Teachers in Oakland, California, voted this week to authorize a strike if their union does not reach an agreement with the district soon. Oakland teachers have been working without a contract since 2017, and pay is a central part of the negotiation.

3 Voters are more concerned about holding charter schools accountable than expanding them.

The survey asked about expanding charter schools in two different ways, asking some voters about the importance of “Expanding school choice through public charter schools” and others about “Increasing the number of public charter schools.” Regardless of the wording of the question, respondents rated it as the least important priority.

Moreover, holding public charter schools accountable was sixth on the list of priorities, ahead of improving school discipline, increasing early education access, and improving services for English language learners.

The findings come as state leaders vow to take a closer look at charters. Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to convene a panel of experts to evaluate the effects of charter schools in the state, in response to demands from United Teachers Los Angeles during negotiations to end the strike in the state’s largest district.

Results of the survey show that voters were most concerned about gun violence and college affordability. School choice was least likely to be viewed as important. (Source: Tulchin Research)

4 A majority support changing the property tax law to benefit schools and local government.

Overall, 55 percent of respondents said they support a change in the state’s property tax law that would reassess business property values every year in order to increase tax revenue to support local government and schools. The proposal could be on the ballot in 2020.

The increase in revenue from that change could be especially beneficial to Los Angeles Unified, which is searching for sustainable funding sources after approving an $840 million contract with its teachers union. The district already faces skyrocketing long-term debt.

5 Voters are divided on the new governor’s pre-K agenda.

Gov. Newsom has said he will prioritize early education for California children. When asked about Newsom’s “cradle to college” priorities, just 10 percent of voters said expanding preschool programs for children ages 3 to 5 was their top priority, and 12 percent said providing prenatal care and programs for children 0 to 3 was most important. On the other hand, 31 percent said their top priority was improving K-12 education, and 25 percent said keeping higher education affordable was most important.

Source: Tulchin Research

Voters were more inclined to say they support universal preschool in the state (48 percent) than targeted programs that would benefit only children from “families who are struggling” (37 percent).

The poll included 2,000 California voters in a survey conducted online from Jan. 3-9, led by researchers at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education (Julie A. Marsh and Morgan Polikoff) and Policy Analysis for California Education (Heather J. Hough and David Plank), and was conducted by Tulchin Research.

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