At last, we find out what parents want
Arizona Republic
May. 1, 2005

Policymakers, legislators and advocacy groups regularly invoke the views of parents to justify their education proposals. Rarely, however, are ordinary parents asked to weigh in on education policy.

This oversight is unfortunate because the common-sense perspective of parents would help ground policy discussions in reality. For the most part, parents do not have the luxury of pushing ideology or playing politics. They tend to be practical and have too much at stake to devote much attention to policies that promote abstract ideologies.

Certainly, parent organizations do at times make their positions known to legislators, but, in general, there is no mechanism for systematically gathering the views of a representative group of Arizona parents. For the past two years, the Arizona Education Policy Initiative, a collaboration of Arizona's public universities, has put in place a simple idea to interject parental opinion into Arizona's education policy debates. We ask them.

The report, "Parent Attitudes About Education in Arizona: 2005," is based on the Policy Initiative's second-annual statewide survey of Arizona parents with children in K-12 public schools. Survey questions address the most pressing issues in Arizona public education.

The survey was taken March 18-26 with questions asked of 398 public school parents and an additional 93 Latino parents. The margin of error was 4.9 percentage points.

What we learned is important and may surprise many.

Parents are pleased with their children's schools and teachers. Specifically, parents identified teaching basic academic skills and meeting the needs of all learners as two areas in which Arizona public schools are doing a particularly good job.

They do not point to school-related policies and practices as the primary cause of low test scores and student dropout rates. Instead, parents view home and family factors as more likely reasons for academic difficulties.

However, they regard inadequate funding as the biggest challenge facing Arizona's public schools.

Parents favor the use of standardized testing to hold schools accountable and prefer to provide assistance to underperforming schools instead of punishing them. A slim majority of parents remain supportive of students passing AIMS as a prerequisite of high school graduation, but there is increased sentiment against high-stakes testing for students.

Arizona, like many states, has two functioning school-accountability systems: state and federal. Arizona officials commonly point out the merits of the state system, Arizona LEARNS, over the much-criticized federal No Child Left Behind Act. However, many more parents are aware of No Child Left Behind than of Arizona LEARNS. Despite the substantial public criticism of No Child Left Behind, more than 50 percent of parents polled hold a favorable view of the federal school-accountability system.

The majority of parents continue to oppose private-school vouchers, perhaps because they do not regard vouchers as a means of improving public schools. That is a conclusion supported by the finding that a considerably larger percentage of parents, compared with those participating in the 2004 survey, feel that providing public dollars to private schools will have a negative effect on public schools. At the same time, support for tuition tax credits has increased, compared with 2004.

Arizona parents have many school-choice options available, including the largest concentration of charter schools in the country. Therefore, it is not surprising that Arizona parents report that there is sufficient choice available to find the best school for their child. Somewhat surprisingly, parents are not well informed about charter schools and do not consider them a significant factor in the state's education system.

A majority of parents believe it is more beneficial academically for non-English-speaking students to be placed in classrooms where only English is spoken rather than in classrooms where both English and their native language are spoken. Hispanic parents are less likely than Anglo parents to agree on the matter.

As the debates continue in legislative circles about the merits of full-day kindergarten, over 75 percent of parents have expressed support for publicly funded, full-day kindergarten with an even higher level of support among Hispanic parents.

The policy initiative intends to continue surveying parents of Arizona public-school students to track shifts in opinion and to interject the voice of this important group in the decisions that affect their children and our state's future.

"Parent Attitudes About Education in Arizona: 2005" will be available on Monday at:

David R. Garcia is assistant director of the Arizona Education Policy Initiative at the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University. Alex Molnar is director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory.