Democrats are losing their longstanding advantage on the issue of education, according to a new poll by the centrist think tank Third Way.
As recently as 2012, voters trusted Democrats over Republicans on education by 25 percentage points or more. Now, that advantage has shrunk to only eight points, a drastically narrowed margin. Thirty-four percent of voters trust Democrats most to handle K-12 education issues, compared to 26 percent who trust Republicans most.
The poll also probed voters more deeply to see how they assessed each of the party’s positions on education, and the sentiments were often not good for Democrats. Forty-eight percent of voters and even 40 percent of teachers described Democrats as “pouring money into a broken system,” while 30 percent of voters and 25 percent of teachers agreed that Democrats put “the interests of teachers above the interests of students.” Democrats were also associated with defending the existing K-12 system and with being captured by educational special interests.
Not everything was awful for Democrats, as Republicans were more likely to be accused by both teachers and the voting public of being complacent about public schools and unwilling to make changes that could boost student performance.
However, merely breaking even with Republicans is a bad sign for Democrats, argues Third Way social policy director Lanae Hatalsky. Traditionally, she says, Democrats have relied on a big advantage in education to offset a perceived weakness in other areas, such as on national security.
Third Way argues that the poll indicates Democrats need to stop relying on voter inertia and instead take more substantive efforts to embrace reform in education. That doesn’t necessarily require them to endorse charter schools or vouchers, but could instead involve simply doing more to improve the raise expectations for teachers.
“Folks who are watching the education debates, when they do see somebody who is talking about a new idea…it seems to be more and more the Republicans who are stepping up to do that,” Hatalsky told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “One of the things I think has been frustrating has been the unwillingness of Democrats at both the state and national level to engage with the issue. They’ve been able to avoid the question and let the Obama administration do the heavy lifting.”
Whatever Democrats do, they need to start acting fast, Hatalsky said. Republicans are expected to propose significant legislation to update No Child Left Behind in 2015, and if Democrats don’t engage with them they could decisively seize the initiative on that issue.
The poll was conducted from Nov. 11 through 16, and had a sample size of 808 general election voters along with 201 public school teachers. The margin of error for the first group was 3.5 percentage points, while for the latter group it was 7 percentage point.
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