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Virginia Journal of Education


Virginians show solid support for public schools in annual poll.

by Sharon Reid and Brian Reid

When it comes to how our public schools are perceived, we don't think the most important audience is Congress, or any other politicians. The audience that matters most to us is parents in your community - their children actually attend public school. So we ask, "What do adults in your community think about local schools?"

For many Virginians in 2008, the answer is, "excellent."

Yes, you read that right, "excellent!" But don't take our word for it. Believe the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University. As part of its 8th annual poll, the Institute asked 800 Virginia adults the following question: What about the public schools in your community - would you say that they provide an excellent, good, fair or poor education?

More than a quarter (27 percent) chose the "excellent" response. That's - well, that's pretty good. And speaking of "good," another 43 percent gave that response, so a full 70 percent of adult Virginians are happy with local schools. People who are not parents of children in the public schools were only slightly less positive (63 percent) - including 23 percent who rate schools "excellent."

All that is excellent news for educators trying to convince politicians that taxpayers want dollars allocated to public schools. But wait-it gets better.

VCU researchers asked public school parents the same questions. A total of zero parents rated their local schools "poor." That's right. Not one. About 15 percent rated them as "fair," meaning that more than 80 percent of adults most knowledgeable about public schools are pleased with them.

As Congress considers re-authorizing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we hope they consider that when asked to rate their children's schools, nearly 37 percent of Virginia public school parents chose the word "excellent." Federal mandates may crimp tax dollars that go to classrooms, and additional dollars may be diverted to offshore testing conglomerates, but we still hope that excellence can be rewarded.

Unfortunately, there isn't enough money, and what there is isn't allocated fairly. The Commonwealth Education Polls 2001 through 2008 provide evidence by region; the best-funded region is Northern Virginia and Northern Virginians hold the most positive views of their local schools. The fact that Rolls-Royce is headquartered in Arlington rather than in a rural county in southwest Virginia tells us that Arlington Public Schools has more dollars to recruit teachers.

The poll also showed that more Virginians are becoming cynics about the NCLB legislation. In 2005, 22 percent said that this federal role hurts school performance. Since then, the Commonwealth Education Poll saw that proportion grow to 35 percent. Will dissatisfaction reach 48 percent in another three years? Thankfully, negative attitudes towards federal intrusion have not spilled over into parents' views of curriculum: 43 percent feel that science and math receive "about the right amount" of emphasis and 41 percent feel the same way about physical education. Poll responses reveal that Virginians are concerned about three areas that concern us: testing, creative thinking and arts integration. In terms of NCLB's impact, 32 percent perceive that schools have "too much" achievement testing; 46 percent are concerned that there is "not enough" emphasis on creative thinking; and 46 percent also feel that there is "not enough" emphasis on arts and cultural education.

Federal mandates are squeezing out the arts - hmm. Will that squeeze help schools produce another Duke Ellington? Another Marvin Gaye? Will that plan have long-term benefits for what has been the most creative society in the history of the world?

Again, we are thankful for Virginians' pragmatic attitudes: 77 percent of all adults approve (30 percent "strongly") of Governor Tim Kaine's voluntary preschool initiative for all children. So there is strong support for the 81 percent of public school parents and 88 percent of parents with young children who believe in universal preschool.

Which, unfortunately, brings us back to inequities.

While 32 percent of adult Virginians think public schools have gotten better during the past five years in providing students with skills to succeed at four-year colleges and in teaching reading, writing and math, positive ratings are skewed by Northern Virginians; 41 percent evaluate public schools in their community as excellent. That rating replicates results from 2006 (40 percent) and 2005 (43 percent). Not so elsewhere. And the divide is not simply north versus south. Eastern and western as well as southern Virginians are less positive - those adults are only half as likely to rate their community public schools as "excellent" - a disparity that illuminates funding differences.

Outside of Northern Virginia, funding is lower. Parents are all too aware that lower funding cannot benefit public schools and their attitudes acknowledge that; in 2008 22 percent of parents in non-NoVa regions rated their local schools as "excellent," 6 points higher than in 2001. Despite progress, ratings from NoVa are usually twice as positive (17 percent vs. 36 percent in 2003, for example). As Richmond politicians consider budget issues, they need to address problems faced by regions that have not benefited from economic growth in the DC suburbs.

Our state legislators would be wise to note attitudes of Virginia taxpayers - their opinions count, and they are better informed about community schools than members of Congress. So what do Virginians think? Results from the 8th Commonwealth Education Poll show regional differences but overall - when asked about their public schools - most Virginians are happy.

Sharon Reid, a former classroom teacher and member of the Arlington Education Association, is now a full-time writer. Brian Reid is an analyst with Alexandria City Public Schools.




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