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Are Public Schools and Universities Meeting Student Needs?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By the Office of Research and Outreach at the VCU Wilder School
January 30, 2023

Forty-three percent of Virginians feel that school-aged students in their communities are falling behind their peers in other states when it comes to proficiency in math and reading, according to a new Wilder School Commonwealth Poll that was released on January 5. Conversely, 24 percent felt that students were on track in math and reading, and only 13 percent felt that students were pulling ahead.

The Commonwealth Poll obtained landline and mobile telephone interviews from December 3 to December 16, 2022, with a representative sample of 807 adults living in Virginia. It had a margin of error of 6.02 percent. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. A two-stage weighting procedure was used to weight this dual-frame sample by the demographic characteristics of gender, age, education, race, ethnicity, Hispanic origin, region of residence and personal phone use.

When we consider the demographic breakdown of participants, political affiliation, race and age had the largest impact on perceptions of educational performance. Republicans, African Americans and those aged 35 to 54 years old believed that children are falling behind in math and reading, while Democrats, Hispanics and those aged 18 to 34 years old believed that children are ahead or on track in math and reading proficiency when compared to their peers in other states.

“Virginians feel that our youngsters are not getting the basics of learning,” said L. Douglas Wilder, who served as the 66th governor of Virginia. “Over 40 percent of respondents believe school-aged students are still falling behind their peers in other states in reading and math proficiency.”

In addition, over half of participants (55 percent) said that did not feel that the education provided by colleges and universities is worth the cost. This belief was especially prominent among female participants, white participants and participants aged 35 to 54. Conversely, African Americans, Democrats and those with a bachelor’s degree or more were most likely to believe that higher education was worth the cost.

“Over half of Virginians feel that an in-state college degree is not worth the cost,” said Wilder. “Tuition has increased at a rate that is no longer affordable for students and their families.”

These findings are similar to those of national polls. A September 2021 survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and Bipartisan Policy Center found that 60 percent of adults overall said that a college degree is worth the time and money. However, demographic differences played a large role in responses. Those in an employer role were much more likely to say that a college degree is “definitely worth it” (49 percent) or “probably worth it” (38 percent). In comparison, Republicans and Independents were less likely to say that a college degree was “definitely worth it (24 percent and 21 percent, respectively) or “probably worth it” (29 percent and 31 percent respectively). Only 13 percent of employers said that a college degree was not worth it, compared to 29 percent of adults overall.

Previous Commonwealth Polls have also pointed to concerns over student education. The January 2022 Commonwealth Poll found that 79 percent of participants felt that students were falling behind due to remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, over half (52 percent) of participants at that time said that they would favor the expansion of charter schools across the commonwealth. This type of school is publicly funded by independently run organizations, and seen by some as an alternative to the traditional public school model that they may not feel is effective for their children. However, opponents of charter schools argue that they minimize diversity at schools, may not be as inclusive as public schools and are less regulated in what they are teaching their students.

Looking ahead, we can consider how policymakers can take action to help ensure that the public is more confident in our K-12 and higher education systems. When asked when they felt that the Governor should address the urgency of issues such as education, over half (53 percent) of participants in the recent Commonwealth Poll said that that they should be addressed soon—at the upcoming convening of Virginia’s General Assembly session in 2023. Forty-two percent of participants felt that these issues were so urgent that the Governor should call a special session of the General Assembly to find solutions and zero percent of participants felt that there was no need for the Governor to intervene.

There’s no question that education is of vital importance; in another previous Commonwealth Poll, education was the public service that people would be most willing to pay increased taxes to support. As debates over education at the K-12 and college levels continue, polls such as these can help provide policymakers with the information they need to make decisions as they work to promote an excellent education for all.

Author: The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decisionmaking to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we provide services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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