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Penna. voters give state schools a 'C'

An Inquirer poll found higher regard for local schools and optimism for urban school improvement.

New Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., second from right, walks on the first day of school with students from AMY Northwest, a new middle school in Roxborough. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
New Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., second from right, walks on the first day of school with students from AMY Northwest, a new middle school in Roxborough. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)Read more

Pennsylvania voters give the state's public schools a low "C" grade and rate their local schools slightly higher, according to the Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll.

Seventy percent of the 600 likely voters who participated in the statewide Inquirer poll last week said they were optimistic urban schools can be improved.

But despite the recent push by Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly, there was a division on charter schools and vouchers between statewide respondents and those in the five-county area.

Statewide, 54 percent of those polled have reservations that opening more charter schools will improve urban education and 56 percent are opposed to giving students in low-performing schools vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.

In Philadelphia and the surrounding four-county region, only 41 percent of voters are opposed to creating more charters and 51 percent have negative views on vouchers.

Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, agreed with the statewide views on charters and vouchers.

"There isn't any evidence charter schools and vouchers are going to improve education," he said in an interview Saturday.

Study after study, Kirsch said, has shown charter students overall perform no better than those in traditional public schools. And he said the state's new $50 million Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program will mostly help students already enrolled in private and religious schools.

Timothy Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, who was told the overall statewide poll results Friday, said: "What this survey shows is the broad range of opinions that Pennsylvanians have when it comes to education, which is why Gov. Corbett believes that parents should have the ability to choose the public or nonpublic schools their children attend."

In a summary of the results, the pollsters said, "The most popular policy for improving urban schools is to raise standards so that students have mastered the skills of one grade before moving on to the next." Seventy-eight percent said the idea was excellent or good. And 63 percent support giving city schools more money to reduce class sizes.

In Philadelphia and the four surrounding suburban counties, 79 percent favor raising standards and 67 percent support more funding.

Poll results are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 9-12 with 600 likely presidential-election voters across Pennsylvania, including 201 in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties.

The research was conducted by the bipartisan team of Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, and National Research, a Republican polling firm. The Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll has an estimated margin of error of 4 percentage points statewide and 6.9 percentage points for the five counties.

The Inquirer New Jersey Poll found similar results, although Garden State respondents were slightly more upbeat about their schools.

"It is not a surprise that poll respondents gave their local schools a somewhat higher grade than schools across the state," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

He said that has been the case with education polls for years, including the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

The Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll found voters statewide gave public schools in the Commonwealth a 2.29 grade overall but awarded their local public schools a grade point average of 2.66. Those in the five-county Philadelphia region were slightly more positive: 2.72 points on a 4.0 scale.

African Americans, who accounted for 10 percent of the statewide respondents but 21 percent in the five counties, were a bit more negative about their local public schools than white voters.

Among those statewide who gave their local schools a grade of C or lower, 15 percent blamed school administrators for the mediocre performance. Buckheit said the finding was unfortunate but not surprising.

"School administrators are the face and voice of school districts and schools," he said. "They are the ones quoted in news articles and interviewed by radio and television when there is bad news. . . . Therefore, those who have negative views about their schools would likely 'blame' the leader for whatever problems exist."

And as districts scramble to cope with revenue cuts and flat funding from Harrisburg, 12 percent of respondents cited low funding as the reason for schools' lackluster performance. Eleven percent blamed parents and the same percentage pointed to teachers. Ten percent faulted teachers' unions.

In the five-county area, 16 percent blamed the parents of public school students and 12 percent blamed administrators. Eleven percent cited lack of school funding and nine percent blamed the teachers' unions.

Megan Knott, a Delaware County Democrat, said she told pollsters the Haverford Township schools merited an A, even though she sends her three children to a Catholic school in Bryn Mawr for religious reasons and because she likes the K-8 model.

Knott is optimistic about urban education and hopes Philadelphia's incoming superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., can help the city's struggling schools.

And although pollsters found that 56 percent of those surveyed had negative views of vouchers, Knott said she favors them.

Nathan A. Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, a fiscally conservative think tank in Harrisburg that supports expanded school choice, pointed out that the wording of poll questions can influence the results.

A 2010 poll conducted for the foundation found "a slight majority" of voters supported vouchers for low-income students.

As has been the case with other polls, about half the African Americans in The Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll said vouchers and opening more charter schools will improve urban education.

Bayard Anderson a Delaware County Republican, told pollsters he was in the pro-charter camp.

"Terrifying is what most of these urban school districts are like - especially given the amount of money being spent on them," the Newtown resident said. "Is there hope? I guess we can only hope there is hope. The charter school system to me is the one possible bright spot."

About the Polls

The Inquirer Pennsylvania and New Jersey Poll results are based on telephone interviews conducted from Sept. 9- 12 with 600 likely presidential-election voters in each state.

Polls were conducted by a bipartisan team of national political pollsters - Jeffrey Plaut, founding partner of the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group, and Adam Geller, chief executive of the Republican polling firm National Research.

The estimated margin of error for the statewide results is plus or minus 4 percentage points; for results from the five-county area - Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties - the margin is plus or minus 6.9 percentage points. The Pennsylvania Poll is sponsored by Susquehanna Bank.

For results for the seven-county South Jersey region - Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, Cape May, and Salem Counties - the margin is plus or minus 8.5 percent. The New Jersey Poll is sponsored by PSEG.