Critics question value of foundation’s school choice survey

The FEA calls the report “poorly designed and flawed.”
A dozen protesters, including Tallahassee residents Colleen and Al Thorburn, far right, gathered outside Holy Comforter Episcopal School in Tallahassee to greet U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. DeVos spent two hours visiting classrooms at the private Christian school. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times
A dozen protesters, including Tallahassee residents Colleen and Al Thorburn, far right, gathered outside Holy Comforter Episcopal School in Tallahassee to greet U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. DeVos spent two hours visiting classrooms at the private Christian school. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times
Published February 25

A survey released Friday touting strong support of Florida’s school choice options from the Foundation for Excellence in Education — the state’s most prominent school choice proponent established by former Gov. Jeb Bush — has drawn heavy criticism from public school advocates and organizations, who contend the release is misleading at best.

The Florida Education Association, for one, deemed the survey “poorly designed and flawed,” suggesting it’s more an advocacy device than a true research instrument. The survey did emerge just as the Legislature prepares to begin session, with a series of proposals to expand vouchers and charter schools high on the Republican leadership agenda.

On the Gradebook’s Facebook page, several readers argued the survey deserved a more insightful analysis, to show that the 800-person sample skewed to older white males without children in the school system, and that the questions appeared to them to be designed to attain a certain outcome.

“Of course a pro choice group asking misleading questions is going to get the results it wants. Shouldn’t the headline be pro choice group gives survey that says people are pro choice? Or maybe this is nothing close to news,” blogger Chris Guerrieri chided, referring to our blog post.

What do they mean by calling the questions misleading?

Some pointed to the wording of this example, which yielded nearly 80 percent support: “Generally speaking, do you support giving parents the opportunity to choose where they send their child to school rather than assigning children to schools based on zip code?”

When researchers ask this question as a choice between school choice and investing in schools, they get the opposite result. The fact is, that the ‘opportunity to choose’ does not exist in a vacuum in the public debate,” FEA spokeswoman Sharon Nesvig said via email. “The authors of this survey know that and wrote this question to produce a result, rather than to learn where voters stand.”

A 2018 poll by an independent group focused on the question differently. It offered two statements relating to helping children in under-performing schools — invest in public schools or give parents more choice — and asked respondents to pick the one that represented their views. The majority in that poll selected investment, even when separated by party identity.

The FEA has been among the strongest critics of the Jeb Bush-era education model, and has sued the state several times over many aspects. It has, in turn, come under attack itself as an organization more interested in adults than in children, something it strongly rejects.

The foundation has stood by its findings, saying it demonstrates the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis are headed in the right direction with plans to eliminate a waiting list for children to get scholarships to private schools.

“Access to opportunity matters, and parents know it,” CEO Patricia Levesque said in a released statement.

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