The sad reality is that the quality of our public schools has always been subject to the tax dollars that can be raised in the neighborhood they serve.

Learning Leadership column, Sept. 2012 edition of eSchool NewsEvery year at this time, I look forward to the release of the Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. Given the apparent dissatisfaction that many Americans have toward public education, the poll results might shed some light on why—and what we as public educators might be able to do about it.

I am immediately drawn to the section that asks the public to grade the public schools. Over the last 20 years, the results have been very consistent on two levels. First, and very much to my liking, the percentage of respondents who have a child in school and give their school a grade of A or B continues to grow. This past year, the number was at 77 percent, significantly higher than it was 20 years ago when the number was 64 percent. What does that tell us? Our public schools are being pounded as being of low quality and dysfunctional and not as good as they used to be. Yet, for those who are direct consumers of what the schools have to offer, parents with children in the school, satisfaction with the public schools is at an all-time high.

Second, when the public at large is asked to grade the school in their community, whether they have children in attendance or not, the results are also consistent in that there has been a continuous increase in satisfaction over the past 20 years. Currently, 48 percent of the public gives the school in their community a grade of A or B. That’s certainly not as impressive as the 77-percent approval rating by parents, but 20 years ago the percentage was 40 percent and it has been increasing steadily over the years.

Here’s the clinker. When asked to rate the public schools in the nation as a whole, only 19 percent of respondents give the schools an A or B rating. But 20 years ago, it was 18 percent! Not much change. There has been steady and significant improvement in how parents with children in school and how residents view their community schools—but attitudes toward our public schools in general has been low and flat for 20 years.

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For the last two years, I have been reporting how the performance of our public schools today is the best that it has ever been. Graduation rates are the highest ever, and dropout rates are at an all-time low. Reading and math results on the fourth and eighth grade NAEP (the “Nation’s Report Card”) are the highest ever. Parent appreciation of this performance seems to be reflected in the growing level of satisfaction with their schools, but the general public’s attitude remains negative and unchanged. What, then, is the reason for the disparity between the facts as reported in the PDK/Gallup Poll and the pernicious attacks on our public schools today? Let us return to the poll results.

To know a school is to like it. The further away we get from actual experience with schools, the less we like them. We can speculate that it is media accounts of failing and dysfunctional schools that continue to keep the general public’s attitude toward schools flat for the past 20 years, in spite of steadily improving performance. Movies like Waiting for ‘Superman’ have for years depicted the plight of inner city schools. Are you old enough to remember Blackboard Jungle and Up the Down Staircase back in the ’50s and ’60s?

The sad reality is that the quality of our public schools has always been subject to the tax dollars that can be raised in the neighborhood they serve. Yes, there are outliers that defy the basic formula, but generally, the higher the concentration of poverty, the lower the achievement levels. Consequently, we have always had a substantial achievement gap between the wealthier suburban school districts and our rural and inner-city school systems.

When asked to identify the biggest problem facing our public schools, the majority of respondents to the PDK/Gallup Poll identify lack of financial support as the culprit. The response is strongest from parents with children in school, and the percentage has increased significantly over the last 10 years. The disparity in performance is also acknowledged in response to the question: “How much would you say the quality of the education provided by the public schools in your state differs from school district to school district?” Seventy percent acknowledge that there is a great deal or quite a lot of difference. A whopping 97 percent of respondents feel that it is very or fairly important to improve the nation’s urban schools, and 62 percent would be willing to pay more taxes to improve their quality—an amazing statistic given the current state of our economy.

It would seem from the poll results that the American public is very much aware of the problem facing our schools and is willing to do something about it. Many of our schools lack adequate financial support, and the public is willing to pay higher taxes to remedy the situation. The problem lies in the ways our schools are funded. The taxpayers in the schools that need more funds do not have the ability to pay higher taxes. A question not asked by the poll but perhaps worthy of consideration for future polls would be, “Would you be willing to pay higher taxes to support schools in communities other than your own?”

In most states, school aid formulas are set to do just that, driving more state aid dollars to low-income school districts. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also was enacted to drive federal dollars to districts based on economic need. Unfortunately, neither the state nor the federal formulas have succeeded in erasing the economic and achievement gaps. The wealthier the community, the more per-pupil dollars that can be raised for the schools in that community. Even when attempts are made to cap the amount of per-pupil spending for education, in the wealthier communities the parents will come to the rescue by raising funds to provide the additional resources they want for their children.

For more news and opinion about school reform, see:

Charters draw students from private schools, study finds

Expert: Federal school reform plan is wrong

Beyond ‘Superman’: Leading Responsible School Reform

Our schools are far from perfect, and there is much that can be done to improve them all. For example, we need to get away from the current time-based, age-based, grade-level structure. We need to do away with seat time requirements and move to a competency-based approach that allows each child to be educated at his or her own pace. Technology can support an individually-based educational system for all children.

But we also need to reform how we fund our public schools and move toward a system where the states and the federal government provide the funding that will truly equalize the playing field. Those are the reforms that will make a difference and improve the quality of education for all of our children. Unfortunately, none of it seems to be part of the current reform agenda.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.