Panel Paper: U.S. Public Opinion on Improving Low-Performing Schools

Thursday, November 8, 2018
8206 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Beth Schueler and Martin West, Harvard University

Despite considerable effort and funding at the highest levels of government, turning around persistently low-performing schools and districts continues to be a major policy challenge. Resistance from key stakeholder groups and perceived public opposition to turnaround reforms may increase the difficulty of enacting changes that could result in school improvement. However, little empirical evidence exists about the public’s views on these topics. For instance, which level of government (federal, state or local) does the public believe is most responsible when schools fail and most capable of generating improvement?

The Every Student Succeeds Act recently devolved some turnaround authority to states and localities (Mann, 2016). Additionally, state takeover of districts has become an increasingly common response to low performance (ECS, 2016). The conventional wisdom is that takeover is highly politically unpopular. Takeover has generated significant resistance in places like New Orleans (Buras, 2015; Jabar, 2015), Memphis (Glazar & Egan, 2016), and Newark (Morel, 2018; Russakoff, 2015). However, rare cases of takeover have generated more limited controversy such as the turnaround of Massachusetts’ Lawrence Public Schools. One reason for the relatively mild response could have been allegations of mismanagement and corruption against local Lawrence officials (Schueler, 2016). However, the factors shaping takeover opinion are largely unknown.

We deploy questions and embed experiments into the nationally representative 2017 Education Next Survey (n=4,214) to address the following research questions:

  1. What level of government does the public believe should play the largest role in identifying and fixing low-performing schools?
  2. Does the public support state takeover of troubled school districts?
  3. Does the rationale for state takeover of districts affect support for takeover?

To get at (3), we randomly assign respondents to different versions of a takeover support question. One specifies takeover “where academic performance has been low for several years” and the other “where there is evidence of financial mismanagement.” We link survey data with the Stanford Education Data Archive to identify respondents living in low-performing districts.

We find that a large plurality of the public prefers that states play the greatest role in identifying (49%) and fixing (48%) failing schools. However, a large share prefers local governments play the largest role in both areas (38% and 37% respectively). Overall, we find high levels of support for state takeover, regardless of the rationale. However, the public is even more supportive of takeover in the case of financial mismanagement (77%) than academic underperformance (70%). Teachers express lower levels of support and higher levels of opposition to takeover. Importantly, takeover support is lowest (though still above 50%) among respondents living in the lowest performing districts in their states, which are the most likely targets for takeover.

In sum, the public is more supportive of state-led turnaround and takeover than might be expected based on our nation’s tradition of local control over education. We discuss potential mechanisms driving opinion and implications of the differences between statewide preferences and the opinions of those in districts most likely to be directly affected by turnaround reforms.