The Public View of Public Schools: Are the Nation's Policymakers Listening?

Who should govern America's public schools? Should public education be led by the president and Congress? State authorities? Or should local school boards -- with access to the local context and community -- be responsible for the quality of public education?

According to the 46th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of Public Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 56 percent of the adults surveyed say that local school boards should have the greatest influence in deciding what is taught in the public schools. Only 15 percent -- less than 1/7 of adult respondents -- support federal government assumption of this role.

This year's PDK/Gallup poll elicited Americans' opinions on a wide array of education topics, including Common Core State Standards, student standardized testing, international comparisons, school choice, and school governance issues.

Despite active debate among lawmakers, policymakers, and education leaders, the public's attitudes on federal involvement are clear: The poll states that "a majority of Americans do not support public education initiatives that they believe were created or promoted by federal policy makers." Americans also expressed concern about adequate financial support for our nation's educational system -- nearly one-third cite lack of financial support as key among the biggest problems that public schools in their community must deal with.

What the poll does not tackle -- yet what merits attention -- are the inherent risks of creating a second system of publicly funded education. Vouchers, tuition tax credits, and non locally authorized charters lack transparency and accountability. Under a private system, there is no obligation to neither share student and financial performance data nor adhere to the open meeting requirements that traditional public schools must follow. In addition to siphoning away public funds toward private enterprise, there is little data to support across-the-board performance gains.

So what should happen next? To quote William J. Bushaw, Chief Executive Officer, PDK International, "Do we recognize and act upon emerging public opinion and return more control to states and local school districts ... or do we follow the current path, maintaining a significant federal role ... even if we know that Americans are increasingly rejecting this approach?"

The public has voiced concern over what NSBA has long argued, that we must define an appropriate federal role in education. What the public correctly identifies is that federal intrusion has no place in America's classrooms.

As the report itself lays claim, these findings "have serious consequences for this nation's system of public education." After documenting numerous conflicts among national and state policy and the public's attitudes, the authors question: "Is it time to go back to the drawing board for school reform?"

How we answer this critical question greatly impacts students' futures and pathways to achievement.

In a companion analysis to the poll, PDK International's Bushaw argues that "every child is unique, and that it is our responsibility to prepare them for success in their careers and in their lives."

Public schools in local communities across America hold themselves accountable to deliver a world-class education to each child. Asked to give a grade of "A", "B", "C", "D", or "FAIL" to the school attended by their oldest child, 67 percent of public school parents or guardians gave local schools a grade of "A & B."

At a national level, our efforts should focus on individualizing instruction and protecting the civil rights of all students. What ultimately has the greatest power to improve education are state and federal lawmakers committed to public education and the goals of the local schools they serve. Perhaps it is this very lack of definition -- the perception of a misguided approach to public education policy -- that manifested itself in the lower scores Americans gave public schools nationally.

The public has spoken -- but are America's lawmakers and policymakers listening? Only through a clearly defined and appropriate federal role, a willingness to explore a revised charge of the U.S. Department of Education, and placing primary responsibility for education in the hands of locally elected school boards who clearly have the greatest confidence of the public, will school reform efforts thrive at local levels.