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West Virginia Poll: Concern about public school performance but distrust of charters

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia voters favor improving public schools, aren’t fully trusting of charter schools, believe teachers should be paid more and are sympathetic to walkouts by teachers unions.

That’s all according to a look at attitudes about education in the latest version of the MetroNews West Virginia Poll.

Rex Repass

“From my reading of this, it shows support for unions and teacher salary increases,” said pollster Rex Repass, president of Research America Inc., which conducts the West Virginia Poll.

“There’s a belief that teachers are underpaid and a desire to improve the current public education system as it exists.”

The West Virginia Poll was conducted between August 14-22 with a sample of 501 registered voters. The overall confidence interval for the survey is +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

The polling follows two years of intense public policy debate about education in West Virginia.

In 2018, teachers walked out of classrooms all over West Virginia to push for a pay raise and greater stability for insurance coverage. The strike kicked off a series of similar actions across the country.

This year, teachers had a two-day walkout over an omnibus education bill that included another pay raise but also policy proposals such as charter schools that public educators strongly opposed.

The big education bill stalled during the regular session. But Gov. Jim Justice called a special session that started with education town halls all over the state. Early this summer, the Legislature passed a broad-ranging bill that authorized pay raises and opened the door to charter schools for the first time in West Virginia.

All that must have affected attitudes toward education in West Virginia. Here’s what the West Virginia Poll says:

Public schools, charter schools

Voters are evenly split on their perception of the quality of education in West Virginia.

Asked about satisfaction with the quality of education students receive in kindergarten through grade 12, 50 percent replied that they are satisfied and 50 percent said they are dissatisfied.

“That’s a concern,” Repass said.

Additional data in the poll showed that voters with children were more likely to report dissatisfaction with the school system than those with no children.

“If you start diving into these demographics, you can really isolate people who are in the system and you see their dissatisfaction is much higher,” Repass said. “Parents recognize reform is necessary.”

Still, West Virginians don’t seem to favor upending the public school system. They want to change it.

The West Virginia Poll asked what approach West Virginia voters believe is preferable to improve public education in their own community.

Sixty-five percent responded that reforming the existing public school system is their preference. Twenty-three percent preferred finding an alternative to the existing public school system. And 12 percent were not sure.

“If you look at the public overall, there is some hesitancy to support an alternative, not knowing what that might mean,” Repass said. “There is a belief the existing system needs reform.”

Yet there is reluctance to embrace charter schools.

The poll shows 40 percent of West Virginia voters opposing charter schools, 35 percent supporting charter schools and 25 percent with no stated preference.

“This also suggests that they’re wait and see: ‘We want to understand more about what charter schools are and how they would be governed,'” Repass said.

The poll question explained charter schools to say they “are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives but are exempt from many state regulations.”

Again, people with children in the school system are more likely to support a charter school alternative, Repass noted. More opposition comes from respondents without children in the school system.

“Those who have children in school, they are less satisfied and also more knowledgeable of the current conditions of public schools,” Repass said.

Teacher pay, teachers strikes and unions

Teacher pay got a bump each of the past two years, but West Virginia voters still believe more progress on pay is necessary.

The average West Virginia teacher salary during the 2018-19 school year was $47,681.16. The National Education Association provides rankings annually. The latest ranking, which reflects 2017-18, has West Virginia teacher pay ranked at the bottom of the country.

Sixty-two percent of West Virginia Poll respondents say teacher pay is too low.

Thirty-one percent say teacher pay is about right.

And 7 percent say it is too high.

The question asked about teachers salaries “in your community.”

“Across the board there’s a belief that teachers in West Virginia – your community, that’s how they think about this – are underpaid,” Repass said.

West Virginians say they would support teachers if they went on strike for higher pay.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents say they would support that action while 31 percent would oppose.

Related to that, more than half of West Virginia’s voters approve of the job performance of teachers unions.

Fifty-five percent say they approve, 27 percent say they disapprove and 18 percent say they are not sure.

That “may be higher than expected support for teachers unions,” Repass concluded. “I believe that is related to a belief that teachers are underpaid.”

The West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Service Personnel Association were at the center of the past two years’ work stoppages, which led to higher pay and changes to the omnibus education bill.

“They have met their objectives. So the assessment of the union is it’s doing its job,” Repass said. “And I believe it’s related to the belief that teachers are underpaid.”

For the work stoppages that caused public schools to be closed the past couple of years, most respondents believe state government is responsible.

Forty-six percent blame state government, 32 percent blame the teachers unions, 11 percent blame individual teachers’ decisions and 10 percent blame local school boards.

“My interpretation is that perhaps it is recognizing that it’s difficult to get legislation passed; the frustration was more on state government and an inability to deal with that versus teachers and their unions,” Repass said.

He added, “I think it’s the entire apparatus from the governor to legislators and an inability to either agree or get something done in a timely manner. It’s sort of the give and take of government.”

Methodology Statement
Results of this edition of MetroNews West Virginia Poll are based on interviews conducted between August 14-22, 2018 with a sample of 501 registered voters in West Virginia including registered Democrats, Republicans, Libertarian, Mountain Party, and unaffiliated or independent voters. Data collection was completed online with purchased sample of registered voters.

Registered voters in all 55 West Virginia counties were sampled for the survey and modeled to the number of registered voters based on data from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.

When using sample of registered voters and online data collection it is not appropriate to apply a probability-based margin of error to interviews completed. However, applying statistical tests of significance to each question asked at the 95 percent confidence interval yields an overall statistical error of +/- 4.4 percentage points based on the 501 interviews. The 95 percent confidence interval varies by question.

The purpose of the West Virginia Poll is to provide a snapshot of opinion and timely voter views in the Mountain State. The media sponsor of the West Virginia Poll is MetroNews Radio Network.

Rex Repass is director of the West Virginia Poll and president of Research America Inc. Repass is responsible for questionnaire design, the respondent screening and selection process, data tabulation, statistical analysis, and reporting of results.

The MetroNews West Virginia Poll is a non-partisan survey of public opinion conducted by Repass and Research America Inc. The West Virginia Poll has been directed by Repass and conducted periodically since January 21, 1980. The name The West Virginia Poll is a trademark owned by Research America Inc., all rights reserved.

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