Thursday, January 22, 2015

Choice Advocates Conduct Poll; Unsurprising Results Ensue

The American Federation for Children is not so much about children as they are "the nation's voice for education choice." So when they called a press conference to announce the results from their recent poll, it is perhaps unsurprising that their pollster found a deep and wide support for school choice far beyond anything I've ever seen in any polls before.


The purpose of the poll was telegraphed right up front in the subject line for their email announcing the press event announcing the poll-- "Is school choice a 2016 sleeper issue ?"

Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the AFC, underlined that point in his opening comments. His reading of the 2014 mid-term elections is that pro-choice candidates (that would be, of course, supporters of school choice, not reproductive choice) swept the election, sent a message to the two largest teacher unions, and put Presidential candidates on notice of which way the wind is blowing. Yes, the AFC would like Presidential hopefuls to set sail for Choiceland, and they are here to try to fill those sails with a little more hot wind.

Chavous introduced the pollster, Debbie Beck of Beck Research, a public opinion research firm. He assures us that she's seasoned with fifteen years of experience and has "represented" major corporations, which strikes me as an extraordinarily odd word to use for a pollster, unless of course you think the business of pollsters is to create "research" to help push particular opinions, and not to be unbiased collectors of facts. But then, she's been a consultant on several political campaigns and has worked for folks like Mayor Michale Bloomberg and StudentsFirst, and introduced herself as a Democratic pollster. Who knew that there was such a thing as a pollster who was partisan on purpose?

So Beck stepped up and announced that their study found that modern charters are not widely supported and lead to segregation and the bleeding off of resources from public schools, so the American Federation for Children would withdraw their support from school choice and instead work to make sure that each child in America gets an iPad and a pony. Ha! Of course not. The report that these choice advocates bought and paid for turns out to prove that they've been right all along!! And People Who Want To Be President should damn well listen to this organization and make school choice part of their platform.


I did not study pollology in college, so I have no professional standing to critique some of their methodology. But I can say that I found some parts interesting.

They used a sample of 1800 likely voters. 800 of those were a full-on national sample. 1000 were an over sample from ten states (100 per state). The ten states were Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. That does not look like an education reform cross-section of America to me, not even if I squint. But this oversample was "case-weighted" into the national samples "so that the number of voters in each state is proportional." "Weighting" in polls is basically about using math to correct bad numbers in your random sample-- say your male/female ration of responders is 70/30 instead of 50/50, so you use math to make the samples "weigh" equally. I'm not sure what that has to do with this study, but I am sure that somehow we've got 1000 respondents from educationally regressive states in the mix somehow. If someone wants to edify me in the comments, I welcome the education.

The breakdown of respondents has some interesting data points. The liberal/moderate/conservative breakdown is tilted away from liberals (22/32/39). Education is pretty evenly distributed, as is gender. Age is distributed pretty evenly by decade until we get to "65 and over," which gives us 29% of the respondents.

Some of the questions on the survey are... well.. not exactly what we'd expect in an unbiased search for The Truth. One portion of the survey tests out both pro- and anti- choice talking points (just in case, you know, anybody who happened to be running for a certain higher office might want to know how to spin). One anti-choice point was "Vouchers allow students to attend private schools that teach creationism, focus on religious studies and oppose homosexuality." Yes, I'm sure the school choice issue is best decided based on how one feels about The Gays.

Perhaps the most egregious fishing expedition in the form of a question was a choose-one-or-the-other question that asked respondents to say whether "we need to make major changes to the ways that public schools are run" or "we only need to make minor changes to the way that public schools are run." I didn't go to pollology school, but I have a degree in Word Stuff, and I respect the artful use of the word "only" to subtly tilt that question. Not surprisingly, 48% went with the major changes. Beck called this result "a big wake-up call."

Also, a ranking question asked "Regardless of your position on vouchers or charter schools, what do you think is the BEST reason to increase school choice in America." This allowed the report to claim that "quality of education" is the top reason to "embrace school choice," even if it represents people whose response was, "I hate school choice, but if I had to ever pick a reason to support it, it would be quality of education, a thing I don't believe choice actually fosters." Some folks did buck the system and say that we shouldn't have school choice, but that number was low (but only 2 points lower that the people who believed that competition creates excellence).

The Results

You can read the full report here. I'll touch on its "major findings."

Two-thirds of respondents support the concept of school choice, with an even bigger jump for special needs scholarships. Public charter schools are popular. At least, they're popular when your poll describes them as "independently managed public schools that receive taxpayer dollars and are open to all students." I'm not sure how the response would have run if they'd described public charters as schools that keep only the students they want and which never allow any auditing or transparency about how they spend the tax dollars they receive. I feel like that description might have changed the numbers a bit.

The top three talking points for school choice are:
1) rescues students in failing schools who need help right now
2) the zip code line, as in poor students shouldn't be stuck in schools because zip code
3) vouchers give poor students in crappy schools an escape to a better education. This talking point also throws in the not-exactly-truthful lines about students in "these programs" having higher achievement and higher graduation rate.

Voucher supporters mostly support them for everyone, not just poor kids. And AFC sees broad support among voters for the idea that competition improves education.

Fun side note. The poll results show Romney leading Bush in the GOP primary race. 


This poll does not pass the smell test.

It was produced by someone whose business is producing results for political purposes, not attempting to ferret out actual truth. It uses a sample that is oddly collected and "weighted." It was produced under the auspices of an organization that even pretended to say, "Well, you know, we just wanted to check and see if we were right in our thinking."

In fact, we know what the purpose of the poll is. Closing out the press conference Chavous said that "all the candidates [for President] need to take heed." Beck (who by the end of the press conference seemed like an actual member of AFC and not any sort of independent pollster) agreed and said she is waiting to hear more from the candidates.

You might say, "What difference do any of their biases make if their findings are True." I might reply, "If a woman goes to the alter and marries me, what difference does it make whether she wants to live a life or mutually supportive joy and union or she is just waiting to slice me open and steal my vital organs?"

This is not an attempt to further an honest and open discussion about the course of US public education-- it's just an attempt to leverage some political clout. And maybe grab some of public education's vital organs.


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