N.J. poll finds views on schools mostly positive

Gov. Christie visits a class at Haddonfield Memorial High School. Local schools in South Jersey got higher marks than local schools overall statewide in the poll.
Gov. Christie visits a class at Haddonfield Memorial High School. Local schools in South Jersey got higher marks than local schools overall statewide in the poll. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 18, 2012

New Jersey voters grading the state's public schools this election season would award between a "B" and a "C," according to the Inquirer New Jersey Poll.

Fifty-five percent of likely voters polled statewide last week gave a grade of B or higher. In South Jersey, 54 percent awarded a B or higher.

Voters expressed even more support for their local schools, with 66 percent statewide and 62 percent in South Jersey awarding a B or better.

But enough voters saw the need for improvement that schools' overall grade point average would rank 2.58 on a 4.0 scale statewide and 2.45 in South Jersey.

The bipartisan poll of 600 likely voters was conducted by phone Sept. 9 to Sept. 12 by the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group and the Republican firm National Research Inc. The statewide margin of error is 4 percent; in South Jersey (Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem Counties), the margin of error is 8.5 percent.

The pollsters got mixed results on two of the Christie administration's favored proposals to give more choice to students in failing schools, namely increasing the number of charter schools and providing voucherlike scholarships for students to attend private or parochial schools.

The Inquirer Pennsylvania Poll, conducted with a similar number of voters and over the same time period, found more opposition than support statewide for vouchers for private and parochial schools, as well as for increasing charter schools, both measures supported by the Corbett administration. Pennsylvania voters also seemed less satisfied with the public schools. The largest single group polled gave the schools statewide a C.

A spokesman for New Jersey's largest teachers union said the poll shows that more New Jerseyans than not are pleased with the public schools.

"New Jersey residents know that our public schools are doing well, and they love their local schools," said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. "They see room for improvement but are optimistic about the future. They want to keep public education public, and they don't think that punishing struggling schools will solve problems."

Overall, voters polled were optimistic about the possibility of improving urban schools: 76 percent statewide and 77 percent in South Jersey, as opposed to 19 percent who were not.

African American and Latino voters were even more optimistic statewide (86 percent) about turning around urban schools than white voters (74 percent). However, the pollsters found black and Latino voters gave the schools lower grades: a 2.40 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale compared with 2.64 for white voters.

For voters who gave their local schools a C or lower, the largest number blamed administrators - 21 percent statewide and 16 percent in South Jersey.

Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said he wasn't surprised.

"They are the managers," he said. "They run the schools on a day-to-day basis."

In statewide polling, teachers were the next faulted (12 percent), followed by parents (9 percent), teachers unions (8 percent), and insufficient funding (8 percent). After administrators, South Jersey blamed not enough funding (14 percent), teachers (10 percent), parents (9 percent), and the students themselves (8 percent).

Only 4 percent of respondents statewide and 2 percent in South Jersey blamed Christie administration policies.

Representatives of the Christie administration did not reply to requests for comment.

In addition to pushing for more choices for families in under-performing districts, the administration supports private nonprofits building schools in some of those districts, including Camden. It also is moving forward with turnaround initiatives that could result in closing persistently failing schools.

Voters also were asked about which measures they favored to improve urban schools.

Poll participant Ray Levinson, a physician, gave an A to Cherry Hill High School East, a high performer that educated his three children. But he said he knows other schools do not reach that bar.

"I certainly like the idea of having kids go to better performing schools, but my own feeling is there has to a better teacher/parent relationship in some of these schools," he said.

That said, 67 percent of voters statewide and 69 percent in South Jersey opposed closing poorly performing city schools and sending students to higher performing suburban schools. African Americans statewide were 81 percent opposed.

The most-favored change was raising standards so students have mastered the skills of one grade before moving to the next (80 percent support statewide and in South Jersey). The Christie administration also supports policies that raise the educational bar.

Those polled also supported breaking big urban schools into small learning communities and giving more funding to city schools to lower class sizes.

However, creating new charters got a 43 percent approval rating statewide and in South Jersey, versus 43 against statewide and 46 opposed in South Jersey.

Retiree John Semenuk, 77, gave his local Moorestown schools an A, although he thinks the schools are overfunded. He supports school consolidation, but not charters.

"Pretty soon, we're going to have a lot of empty buildings that we don't know what to do with," he said.

Mary Merryfield, 46, of Oaklyn, isn't a charter school fan either.

"It's a bad idea because it's a wide open door for corruption," said the bartender, whose daughter attended local public schools. "It sounds like the ones politically connected are going to get and the ones who aren't won't."

Support was mixed for providing vouchers to attend private school, with slightly less in favor as opposed both statewide and in South Jersey. But on closer examination, support varied along demographic lines. Latino voters gave vouchers the highest approval rating, followed by African American and then white voters.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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