Thursday, March 29, 2012

Does the Times know the difference between a phone survey and election day results?

This issue of authorizing charter schools in Washington state continues to be a contentious one. Passionate advocates on both sides want to provide the best education possible for our children.

When engaging in these debates, it’s important to have the correct facts so that people can form opinions based on solid information. Unfortunately, the op-ed written by the Friedman Foundation and the Freedom Foundation published in the Seattle Times this morning leaves out some pretty key facts.

Let’s start with the headline.

If voters favor charter schools, why can't state lawmakers?

FACT: Voters in Washington have rejected charter schools at the polls three times since 1996. The headline and the premise of the op-ed are based off a phone survey of registered voters conducted by the two conservative foundations. A phone survey of registered voters and actual election results are completely different things. As demonstrated multiple times at the polls on election day, voters do not favor charter schools.

Now let’s look at the survey itself, which you can read here. On the question regarding support for charter schools, the organizations boast “Washington voters favor charter schools by an overwhelming margin of 60 percent in support.” Let’s look at this claim with additional poll data they conveniently left out of the Times op-ed.

Respondents were asked how familiar they are with charter schools. The results:

•    11% - Very familiar
•    35% - Somewhat familiar
•    40% - Not that familiar
•    14% - Never heard of/don’t know

Over half of the respondents have very little or no knowledge at all about charter schools. And depending on the definition of “somewhat familiar,” an argument can be made that 9 of 10 respondents have limited or no knowledge on the topic. That’s a key observation given how the specific question about charter schools was phrased:
You don’t have to be a professional pollster to see the inherent bias and influence in this phrasing. Given that the majority of respondents are admittedly unfamiliar with charter schools, the first part of this question could influence the responses. Using phrases like “have more control” and “exempt from regulations” are loaded phrases purposely designed to influence the results, especially among those unfamiliar with the issue.

A pollster would get equally biased results in the other direction if the question was phrased:
A recent study by Stanford University found only 17 percent of charter students performed better than their peers in public schools while half performed the same and 37 percent of charter students received an education that was significantly worse than traditional public schools. In general, do you favor or oppose charter schools?
Pro-charter advocates want the best for their children. So do those who favor the traditional public school model. As the debate continues, let’s make sure we have the correct facts and unbiased information on the table.

On a side note, the Friedman/Freedom poll also found nearly half of all respondents favored raising state taxes to fund public schools, but that’s a topic for another day.

To read this story in Spanish, click here.