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Education top issue for city, poll finds

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A poll from the Pew Charitable Trusts has found that residents rank education as the top issue facing Philadelphia, outpacing crime and the economy.

Opinion on the quality of the public schools has sunk over the past several years, the poll showed, but views on charter schools were mixed.

Only 11 percent of respondents want to keep the School Reform Commission, with 48 percent wanting to replace it with a local board of education and 41 percent having no opinion. If the SRC goes, 64 percent favor an elected board and just 11 percent want an appointed board, while 25 percent had no opinion.

Before the state took over the city schools and installed the SRC in 2001, the District was governed by a nine-person board appointed by the mayor. Philadelphia has never had an elected school board.

Responding to an open-ended question, about one in three people, or 32 percent, cited education as the most important issue facing the city, compared to 23 percent for crime and 22 percent for jobs and the economy.

Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiatives, said that pollster Cliff Zukin found this result surprising in a city that has not come out of the recession well and where unemployment and crime are still high, though declining.

"He thought it quite striking," Eichel said.

Just 19 percent of respondents rated public schools in Philadelphia as "good or excellent," down from 30 percent in 2009, while 77 percent ranked them fair or poor. That was up from 63 percent in 2009. Fully 48 percent, nearly half, ranked the schools as "poor."

While 58 percent of respondents said they felt charters improve education options and keep middle-class families in the city, 55 percent said they would rather invest more in traditional public schools and just 35 percent favored expanding charters, which are financed by taxpayers but independently run.

Eichel said he didn’t find those results contradictory.

"Probably the right way to look at this is that people may have a positive view of charter schools, but they don’t think of them as the only answer to improving public education," he said.

The 58 percent favorable view of charters was down slightly from 64 percent in 2013. At the same time, one in three respondents, 33 percent, agreed that charters "take too much money away from the public schools and lack sufficient oversight," which is up from 26 percent two years ago.

The strongest charter school supporters are people with school-age children, those with household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, and residents of South and Northeast Philadelphia. Eichel said that opinions among White and Black respondents showed little difference. Those least supportive of charters were people 65 and older, college graduates, and residents of North Philadelphia.

Support for traditional schools was highest among college graduates and residents of Northwest Philadelphia.

The telephone survey was conducted between Jan. 28 and Feb. 19 among a random sample of 1,603 residents. The margin of error for the sample is approximately 2.5 percentage points.

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