(From the MILWAUKEE SENTINEL JOURNAL, August 21, 2008)
By AMY HETZNER
A new poll on the public’s perception of education indicates that more think Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama would be better for public schools than think rival John McCain would, even on the traditionally Republican issue of parental choice.
William Bushaw, executive director of Phi Delta Kappa International, called Obama’s lead over McCain one of the most significant findings of the poll that his educator organization has conducted for 40 years with poll-giant Gallup Inc.
“When you drill down even deeper and ask Americans who would do better in the four specific areas — closing the achievement gap, promoting parental choice, supporting research and funding education — in all four cases, Senator Obama received a much more favorable rating than Senator McCain,” Bushaw said.
While President Bush ran neck-and-neck in previous polls with Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry on the question of whom respondents would vote for solely based on a desire to strengthen public schools, Obama was favored 46% to 29% over McCain on the same question this year, according to the poll.
People also found Obama much more likely than McCain to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, by a factor of 59% to 18%.
Obama’s weakest showing was on the issue of promoting parental choice. But even there he beat the poll’s 3 percentage point margin of error, with 43% saying he would be better vs. 32% for McCain.
“That surprised me,” said former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Howard Fuller, a voucher proponent who said he is supporting Obama. “I mean, it’s interesting to hear that. It’s a bit of a surprise to me.”
The differences are striking given that neither candidate has said much about education, Bushaw said.
That leads some to think McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, might be able to make up ground.
State Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) pointed to the poll’s finding of growing support for allowing students to attend private schools at the public expense. The share of respondents who favored this idea increased to 44% in 2008 from 39% the year before.
McCain has come out in support of such voucher programs. Obama has not, though some have seized on a statement he made to the Journal Sentinel editorial board in February as leaving the door open to private-school vouchers if they can be shown to work.
“I just think that, in general, the public simply doesn’t know where the candidates stand,” Vukmir said. “Hopefully the McCain campaign will capitalize on this.”
The PDK/Gallup poll of 1,002 adults was completed in early July before McCain had thoroughly outlined his educational platform, said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
That’s important because, unlike Obama, McCain has not had much involvement in education issues from which the public could form an opinion, said Petrilli, a former U.S. Education Department official under Bush.
And, he noted, the poll question on parental choice can be interpreted broadly to include charter schools and public school choice, both of which Obama favors.
“I think that it is fair to say Barack Obama is a strong supporter of choice,” Petrilli said.
The impression that Obama would be better than McCain on the issue of choice also is likely driven by his past as a community organizer, said Joe Williams, executive director of New York-based Democrats for Education Reform. Obama’s background can be seen as giving him a better understanding of the issues confronting families, he said.
Although the Democratic Party historically has been viewed more favorably on education issues than the GOP, that’s not true when it comes to choice, Williams said.
“We’re generally seen as the party that’s standing in the way of choices,” he said. “But that’s changing.”