What Do Americans Say Is the Biggest Problem Facing Public Schools?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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Is the biggest problem facing public schools ineffective teachers? The media's fascination with tales of failing schools, rubber rooms, and kids waiting for 'Superman', would certainly have you think that's the case. According to the 44th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, Americans actually see a lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing their community schools.

Indeed, for a third year in a row, 71% of poll respondents say they have trust and confidence in the nation's teachers. But 43% of parents and 35% of Americans in general say money is the biggest issue. A decade ago in 2002, just 17% of poll respondents cited a lack of funds for schools as a problem. Back then Americans felt the biggest problems facing schools were overcrowding and discipline issues like fighting, gangs, and drugs. Now only 14% of Americans think those things are big problems.

PDK/Gallup says the response to the question (the first asked and posed in an open ended manner so that respondents aren't influenced by suggested responses or subsequent questions) "documents the single most significant shift in American public opinion regarding their schools."

It's not surprising that this shift has happened given how severely education budgets have been gutted over the past few years. Since the start of the recession, school districts across the country have endured multiple rounds of teacher layoffs, cut instructional materials, fired school librarians, shuttered libraries because there's no one to staff them, and slashed critical arts programs. Kids are emptying their piggy banks to keep teachers on staff, and they and their parents have been turned into salespeople, constantly fundraising so schools can buy supplies and keep math coaches around.

What's encouraging, however, is that although many of our political leaders continue to slash funding for public education, that's not what most of us want. A full 97% of Americans believe it's "very or somewhat important to improve the nation's urban schools" and two out of three said they'd be willing to pay higher taxes to accomplish that. While there are clear political divisions—only 41 percent of Republicans are down for raising taxes to support schools compared to 80 percent of Democrats—these poll results reveal that there's a growing recognition that we can't have champagne dreams for our children's education if we're only willing to fork over beer money. 

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Philip Taylor PT