I queued up five “hard” fourth-grade math questions from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Out of curiosity, I asked my almost-seven-year-old son, who would be entering second grade in the Fall except that we homeschool, to try out the problems. For reference, he is mostly done with “Singapore” Dimensions Math second-grade materials. He got three of five, which I thought was pretty good.
My kid aced the following questions: If the perimeter of a square is 12 units, what’s the area? Which fraction of those given is closest to one-half? (The answer was five-eighths.) If a six-inch-long bill spans a table ten times, how long is the table in feet? He had trouble with long division, which we haven’t covered yet, and with figuring out that 2 x 7 x 0 x 4 equals zero. He made some progress on those, though. With a bit of prompting, he realized that 184 divided by 115 has to be between one and two. And he knew that 7 x 0 is zero, so I was able to explain that the longer string also is equal to zero.
I have high confidence in my family’s homeschooling program because I can directly see its results. Although we spend only a couple hours every day on formal schooling, with the rest of the time devoted to informal projects and playing with friends, my child is progressing well, and in some areas he’s excelling.
Many people have a hard time evaluating public schools—those operated by government and funded by taxpayers—because people have direct insight only into their own children’s experiences in school. Some parents educate their children at home or in private schools; others don’t have children. So it can be hard to know, in general, how the public schools are performing.
Compounding the problem, various factions have different agendas concerning the public schools, so it can be hard to know who is conveying the full truth and who is cherry-picking. Often the news reports sensational stories but not the usual state of affairs. When I read the horrible story of a student at Liberty Middle School in Cherry Creek brutally assaulting another student twice in a single day, it’s hard for me to know if such violence is a rare outlier or a common occurrence.
Given the difficulties of acquiring good information, I suppose we should not be too surprised that a recent Magellan poll on Colorado public schools indicates ambivalent attitudes.
When asked whether they approve “of the job your local school district is doing educating students,” people split 42% disapprove to 40% approve. Interestingly, only two subgroups, Democrats and those age 65+, showed net approval. Yet every group showed strong net favorable opinions “of the teachers in your local school district.”
When asked if they “think the public schools in your area are heading in the right direction” or “are off on the wrong track,” every group except Democrats on net said the latter. And even Democrats split almost evenly, with 34% saying “right direction” and 30% saying “wrong track.” Overall, only 28% said “right direction” while 44% said “wrong track.”
Why do many people think public schools are on the wrong track? One response indicates the concerns of some: “They’re too political with gender and racial based education.”
To summarize, people generally think public schools suck, their own school districts are so-so, and their local teachers are great. These results don’t make much sense.
Next consider the questions on financing. By a margin of 42–31%, most people think it is not the case that “your local school district manages its financial resources efficiently and spends taxpayer money wisely.” The obvious solution, then, is to give school districts more tax money, right? Apparently that’s what a lot of people think.
By a margin of 49–43%, most people said school districts do not “have the financial resources needed to provide students with a good education.” “Do you think additional funding for public education in Colorado will result in a better education for students?” By a margin of 56–37%, most people said yes.
People split about evenly over whether to modestly increase property taxes for school improvements, but were much more enthusiastic (57–37%) about raising property taxes “to fund raising teacher salaries in your local school district.” People also thought it was a good idea (41–30%) to give “a portion of future TABOR refunds” to schools.
To again summarize, people generally think schools suck at spending tax money, so therefore we should give them more tax money, especially for teachers’ salaries. These results make a certain amount of sense if we assume many people are saying that schools should pay teachers more rather than waste funds on bloated bureaucracies and such.
Here’s some bad news for the “school choice” movement. Magellan asked, “Some people believe the ‘learning loss’ among Colorado students due to remote learning and COVID education policies justify giving tax dollars directly to parents to pay for tutoring, tuition at another school, or other educational needs. Do you agree or disagree with this viewpoint?” By a strong margin, 60–34%, people disagreed. (In related news, a voucher proposal in Texas did not poll very well.)
What I take from all this is that, although a lot of people are not too happy with public schools, usually they want to try to fix those schools rather than fundamentally change direction. Meanwhile, we should not be surprised that public schools seek to please the majority.
People who walk a different path still are forced to pay for the public schools that they don’t use. Some families, including mine, are able to make that work. Unfortunately, the public schools continue to leave many children behind.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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