Americans love teachers but split over teachers’ unions, poll shows

Americans show strong support for public-school teachers, according to a new poll. But a partisan divide exists over the role of teachers' unions.

By , Staff writer

Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, have at least a few things they can agree on in education reform, according to a new poll released Wednesday: They have confidence in teachers – and believe the nation should be doing its utmost to recruit and encourage good ones – and they want more choice in what public schools or charters their children can attend.

In other areas, particularly when it comes to unions and collective bargaining, their attitudes are more split.

This year, among other topics, the poll plumbed people’s opinions on teachers, unions, and how teachers should be evaluated and compensated – all issues in the news. This is the 43rd year that Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) and Gallup have conducted the survey of Americans’ opinions on public schools, including both new and old questions each year.

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“There is strong support among the public for public-school teachers, but there is growing concern expressed in the poll for the role of unions,” notes Tom Toch, cofounder of Education Sector, a nonpartisan think tank. He says the difference shows “bit of a disconnect.”

Forty-seven percent of respondents say unionization has hurt the quality of public education in America, compared with 38 percent in 1976, the last time the question was asked. The number of Americans who say unionization has helped has jumped slightly, too – from 22 percent to 26 percent – and far fewer Americans (just 2 percent, compared with 13 percent in 1976) have no opinion on the subject.

“I think Americans perceive that the teachers' unions are protecting bad teachers,” says William Bushaw, executive director of PDK International. “And Americans, if anything, want high-quality teachers.”

When it comes to the contentious issue of whether seniority should be the basis for layoffs, for instance – a current lightning rod in many states and districts – most respondents say that multiple factors should be used, and that the principal's evaluation of a teacher's performance should be given the most weight.

Not surprisingly, Americans are split largely on partisan lines in terms of how they view teachers' unions as well as how they view the disputes in states like Wisconsin and Ohio between governors and teachers' unions.

Unions, however, took some comfort in the fact that more Americans favor the unions than the governor in those disputes (52 percent to 44 percent), and also that, whatever they think of unions, Americans seem to be united in their good opinion of teachers.

“In an environment where a lot of my members feel under attack, I think they will take great heart that the public really does believe they know what they’re doing and care about kids,” says Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association.

When asked to grade the teachers in their community, 69 percent of those polled gave them an A or a B, compared with 50 percent in 1984.

In a statement, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten also lauded the strong support for teachers that the poll found, saying it “is all the more heartening given that more than two-thirds of respondents say they hear more bad news about education than good news.” As for the poll’s findings on opinion of unions, she criticized the question, noting that it is “framed in a way that implies union work is limited to narrow issues of compensation and working conditions.”

Just over 70 percent of poll respondents say they have trust and confidence in public-school teachers, and about three quarters also say that they would encourage the brightest person they know to become a teacher and that they believe teachers should be given flexibility, rather than be required to follow a prescribed curriculum.

“It’s really encouraging to see that there are some things that are really important about education that three-fourths of the people in the country agree on,” says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Mr. Nathan also cited the poll’s findings on school choice. The poll has asked questions about charter schools, public-school choice, and vouchers for several years, and public opinion seem to be solidifying.

Both charter schools and public-schools received the highest approval ratings yet (70 percent and 74 percent, respectively), while the idea of vouchers that could be used at private schools got the lowest approval rating, with just 34 percent agreeing with the idea.

“The public is embracing school choice to a greater extent than ever before, but makes an important distinction between public-school choice and giving people money to go to private schools,” says Mr. Toch.

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