Why are voters focused on education during a time when the unemployment rate is approaching 10 percent? Because 80 percent believe that a quality education is the key to finding a good job in today’s modern economy. Voters also know that far too many American students are not getting the education they deserve to prepare them for success in college or a career. And the parents and grandparents who love them are worried.
Conducted in late June for the Alliance for Excellent Education by respected Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Christine Matthews, this bipartisan poll shows nearly seven in ten voters say that a diploma from America’s public high schools does not prepare graduates to get a good-paying job; less than half of voters believe that a high school diploma prepares graduates to succeed in college.
Almost three-quarters believe that improving high schools is an urgent priority—a higher emphasis than for improving middle or elementary schools. Here voters may be linking their economic concerns and education as 69 percent say the high school dropout rate has a significant impact on the nation’s economy.
Nearly half of voters think President Obama is not paying enough attention to public high schools. Congress fares worse, with large majorities saying that Republicans in Congress (62 percent) and Democrats in Congress (58 percent) are not paying enough attention.
The poll respondents clearly state that they would be impressed with action on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As the federal legislation directly affecting grades K-12, NCLB was groundbreaking when it was signed into law in 2002. But almost ten years later it’s a compact disc in an iPod world—useful but in desperate need of an upgrade. By reauthorizing ESEA, Congress can build upon the positive aspects of NCLB while doing more to help every student graduate from high school prepared for college and a career.
Voters agree. In fact, over three quarters of voters want Congress to change NCLB to improve the quality of public high schools—this year.
Were Congress to take this action, it would immediately resonate with the American voter.
According to the poll, over 80 percent of voters say that improving the quality of public high schools through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is a voting issue for them. This finding holds true across party lines, with 86 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans, and 69 percent of independents holding this view.
More than once, I’ve run for reelection during a highly polarized election year. If my pollster had come to me with an issue that received the enthusiastic bipartisan support of over 80 percent of voters, my only question would be, “How do I make this happen?”
Failure to respond also promises strong voter reaction. Over half of voters say their decision to vote for a current elected official in the 2010 congressional elections will be affected if Congress fails to act this year on this issue. Among mothers (65 percent) and independent women (66 percent)—groups that many pollsters say will be the key in this year’s congressional elections—the percentages are even higher.
Voters are interested in the two parties working together—but they’re also interested in results.
Hearkening to the traditional bipartisanship of education legislation, three quarters of voters would be more likely to support a candidate who says Democrats and Republicans should do everything they can to work together to renew ESEA. But two thirds of voters say that passage of ESEA should not be delayed if both parties cannot reach agreement.
For every incumbent of either party, the message from this poll is straightforward. Americans are concerned about the growing problems with the nation’s high schools. They understand the connection between poor high schools and a poor economy. And, most important, they want President Obama and the Congress to act—this year—to fix them.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. The West Virginia Democrat served as governor from 2001 to 2005 and represented the state’s second congressional district from 1983 to 2001.