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2016-17 Commonwealth Education Poll: K-12

As the General Assembly makes critical decisions about education policy in the state, a recent poll by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute shows that Virginians from all geographic regions overwhelmingly support the redesign of Virginia’s high schools.

“Last year, Governor McAuliffe worked in a bipartisan manner with members of the General Assembly to pass legislation that would redesign high school to focus more on workforce skills and provide a variety of rigorous pathways to graduation,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent. “And this poll clearly shows that the citizens of the commonwealth overwhelmingly support this approach to bring education into the 21st century.”

For the second year, the Wilder School’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute asked respondents about changing the high school curriculum to focus on general skills in early years with later grades focusing on skills needed for a desired career path. The poll found continued broad support for such a restructuring, with more than three-quarters of respondents (77 percent) in favor of this transition.

Additionally, a strong majority of Virginians (69 percent) would be willing to contribute more in taxes to keep state funding for public schools at the current level. A smaller majority (54 percent) would willingly pay more in taxes if policymakers chose to increase funding for public schools. The state is currently working to balance a projected $1.2 billion deficit.

A willingness to pay more in taxes for increased funding grows to 67 percent if the additional funding would be targeted to high-poverty, low-performing schools that are working to increase student performance. A plurality of those respondents (44 percent) said the preferred use for added funds would be increasing teacher pay.

“Over the past three years, Governor McAuliffe has made supporting our teachers and improving our challenged schools high priorities,” Trent said. “This poll proves that the citizens of the commonwealth support this crucial work, and are eager to see our teachers receive the compensation they deserve for the life-changing work they do.”

Trent joined Wilder School Interim Dean John Accordino, Ph.D., and Robyn McDougle, Ph.D., interim executive director of the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute and associate professor, at a Capitol news conference today to share the poll’s findings.

Two-thirds of Virginians (66 percent) say that Virginia schools do not have enough funds to meet their needs, while only 26 percent say schools have enough funding now. Close to seven in 10 respondents (69 percent) said that the amount of funding affects education quality a great deal or quite a lot.

The proportion willing to pay higher taxes to keep public school funding at current levels is above 50 percent for all partisan groups, but a significant 33 percentage point gap exists between Democrats and Republicans. A partisan breakdown shows 85 percent of Democrats are willing to see taxes increased if it meant level funding for public schools, compared to 71 percent of independents and only 52 percent of Republicans.

A similar 33 percentage point gap exists between partisans on their willingness to pay more in taxes to see funding increased with 72 percent of Democrats being willing, compared to 39 percent of Republicans. This gap is the second highest recorded in the 14 years the question has been asked in the Commonwealth Education Poll.

“Most Virginians appear to want policymakers to look somewhere other than schools to make budget cuts,” McDougle said. "While the governor’s proposed budget amendments, which protect public school funding increases made last year, have strong public backing, the partisan breakdown shows that legislators from heavily Republican districts are hearing a much different public voice than the one heard by legislators in heavily Democratic districts."

Public opinion also favors keeping funding for mental health services at the same level. According to the poll, that area of state government is the only one that Virginians see as a higher priority than public school funding. Seventy percent of respondents would willingly pay more in taxes to keep funding the same for mental health services. This compared to 58 percent who said the same about aid to low-income families and workforce training and development. Willingness to support transportation (47 percent) and universities and higher education (46 percent) was lower.

The poll also found that, among those willing to pay more in taxes to increase spending on schools, 45 percent favored a sales tax as the preferred mechanism while only 21 percent favored an income tax and 19 percent favored real estate taxes.

“Though wrap-around services in at-risk schools are often suggested as needed by education policy experts,” McDougle said, “the most important use the public sees for increased school funds is increasing teacher pay.”

Other findings of the newly released poll include:

  • Forty-five percent of respondents oppose changing the state constitution to give charter schools greater independence from local school boards; 40 percent favor such action.
  • Seventy-eight percent of respondents feel their community’s schools were safe or very safe, with 27 percent saying they were very safe.
  • Seventy-four percent want to see teachers who work in schools that fall short of state accreditation paid about the same as teachers in fully accredited schools; 13 percent said teachers in such schools should be paid more, while 9 percent said less.
  • Fifty-six percent would be willing to have their child earn some high school credits online; only 14 percent would be willing for their child to earn all high school credits online, while 28 percent want none of their child’s credits to be earned online.

These findings are part of a new statewide survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University. The Commonwealth Education Poll was conducted by landline and cell telephone from November 8-17, 2016, with a random sample of 806 adults in Virginia. The margin of error for the poll is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. This poll is conducted annually by VCU’s Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute, which is part of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Portions of the poll related to higher education and workforce development will be released on Thurs., Jan. 26.

A PDF of the 40-page report including complete question wording and detailed tables of results is available here.