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Arizonans say education is valued but underfunded

May 16, 2012

The overwhelming majority of Arizona voters believe that a top-quality public school system is either crucial or very important to the future of Arizona, but few believe state funding reflects that commitment, according to findings in a recent Merrill/Morrison Institute Poll.

While support for a quality public school system is high, the statewide poll of 488 registered voters also found that half of Arizona’s voters rate the state’s public schools as poor or very poor, and nearly three-quarters say that the state’s public school system is underfunded.

According to the poll, 97 percent of Arizona voters say that a top-quality public school system is either crucial (70 percent) or very important (27 percent) to the state’s future.

While voters consider top-quality public schools a high priority, less than half rate Arizona’s public schools as excellent (2 percent) or good (42 percent). Forty-one percent rate the state’s schools as poor and 9 percent rate them as very poor. Latino voters gave schools higher marks (4 percent excellent and 56 percent good) than whites (2 percent excellent and 41 percent good).

More than seven in 10 Arizona voters (74 percent) say that the state Legislature provides the public schools with less funding than they need, compared with 17 percent who say the funding is about right and 6 percent who say that funding is more than what is needed. While the overwhelming proportion of Democrats (85 percent) and Independents (82 percent) believe that public school funding is too low, 58 percent of registered Republicans feel the same way.

Finding: Keep public money in public schools

In addition, the poll found that 71 percent of Arizona voters oppose shifting funds from public schools to parochial, private and charter schools, while 26 percent think that the state should spend less public money on public schools and more on parochial, private and charter schools.

While the majority of members from all political parties oppose putting more public school funds into parochial, private and charter schools, slightly more than one-third of Republicans (35 percent) favor that strategy compared with 16 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of Independents. Eighty-two percent of Democrats strongly oppose (51 percent) or oppose (31 percent) such a strategy.

The poll also found that nearly two-thirds of Arizona voters (63 percent) prefer that funding for public schools comes from extending the 1 percent sales tax than by depending on allocations from the state Legislature (22 percent). Fourteen percent indicated that they don’t know which the better option is.

Bruce Merrill, the director of the poll, notes that next to creating jobs and rebuilding the state’s economy, voters see the need to improve the quality of education as the most serious problem facing Arizona.

“The message from voters is clear – education is critical to Arizona and people want more resources to go toward building a quality education system,” said Merrill, who is a senior research fellow at Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “Voters do not want the funding for public schools diverted to private and charter schools and are even willing to have their taxes raised to support a quality education system in Arizona.”

Voter priorities and English only

The poll also queried voters about what priority the state should place on six education-improvement tactics. All six tactics were seen as very high or high priorities by the state’s voters, although there were some distinctions among them.

Putting more emphasis on teaching basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic received the most support, with 91 percent rating it as a very high (54 percent) or high (37 percent) priority. Voters also supported placing more emphasis on math, science and new technologies (88 percent), increasing teacher salaries (86 percent), improving teacher quality (84 percent) and hiring more teachers to reduce class size (83 percent). 

Although the majority sees it as a priority (63 percent), a somewhat lower percent rate requiring that classes be taught in English only as very high (39 percent) or high (24 percent) priority. Significantly fewer Latinos (45 percent) than whites (64 percent) view requiring that classes be taught in English only as a priority. In fact, nearly half of Latino voters (48 percent) rate requiring that classes be taught in English only as a low (35 percent) or very low (13 percent) priority compared with 33 percent of whites. Seventy-nine percent of registered Republicans rate requiring that classes be taught in English only as a very high (53 percent) or high (26 percent) priority compared with 44 percent of registered Democrats and 61 percent of Independents.

“Arizonans have consistently voiced support for a strong public school system, but consistently give the current system low marks,” said David Daugherty, director of research at Morrison Institute. “These recent poll findings reinforce that and give an indication voters would be willing to pay more to improve the system. Arizona’s future, like the future of all states, is dependent upon its public education system.

“If Arizonans want a bright, successful, fiscally strong future for the state, a top-rate education system must be its primary investment. If, on the other hand, Arizona fails to provide a top-quality education for its children, the future will be far less attractive and everyone will feel the effect,” Daugherty added.

Fifty-nine percent of the 488 telephone interviews were conducted in Maricopa County, 16 percent in Pima County and 25 percent in Arizona’s other counties. Forty-nine percent of the voters interviewed were men; 51 percent women. The sample was weighted to be 36 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 34 percent registered independents or “others.” The sample was selected so as to include representative samples cell phone users and Hispanics. The sampling error for the statewide sample survey is plus or minus 4.4 percent. The interviews were live and conducted April 10-14 and April 16-20.