3 out of 4 Americans support giving teachers a raise, the highest in a decade

Striking teachers have been successful at drumming up support for a raise, a new national poll suggests.

Nearly three in four Americans think teachers should be paid more, the poll shows.

That points to a potentially strong base of support for the proposals by a number of Democratic presidential candidates to dramatically raise teacher pay and ramp up federal investments in high-poverty schools.

“The tenor of these provocative ideas is resonating with the American public,” write the researchers who released the poll for Education Next, a Harvard-based research journal, which is generally sympathetic to school choice. “Support for increasing teacher pay is higher now than at any point since 2008, and a majority of the public favors more federal funding for local schools.”

But a separate recent poll shows that support has limits, as many say they are also wary of increased taxes. That’s consistent with recent ballot initiatives in Colorado and Los Angeles, where voters soundly rejected tax increases for schools in the wake of teacher protests.

The Education Next poll also shows some evidence of increasing support for policy ideas often at odds politically with teachers’ groups: expanding alternatives to district public schools, like charters and private school vouchers. Although protesting teachers in a number of places have targeted their ire at charter schools or vouchers, that does not appear to have dampered support for these policies.

Overall, Americans still disagree about these issues: 48% say they support charter schools, while 39% percent oppose them, for instance. Democrats are divided, too, with black and Hispanic Democrats more supportive of school choice initiatives than white Democrats.

Here’s more detail about the findings.

1. The public wants to pay teachers more — at least in the abstract.

Education Next, which conducts an annual poll on education issues, asks about teacher pay in two ways. For one group, they simply ask whether public school teacher salaries should go up, go down, or stay the same. Asked this way, 72% of Americans think teachers’ salaries should go up, an increase of several points since 2017.

The poll also asks the same question after telling respondents how much the average teacher actually makes in their state. (Nationally, the average is about $59,000. Neither version of the question mentions that teachers tend to make less than other college graduates.) In this case, 56% want teachers to be paid more.

That’s a 20-percentage-point jump in two years — a large increase that’s likely attributable to the teacher protests that spread through states including West Virginia and Arizona and cities like Los Angeles and Denver in 2018 and 2019.

Some states that have seen teacher protests have substantially increased education spending, which recent research has linked to better outcomes for students. Elsewhere, though, voters haven’t been willing to accede to teachers’ demands. In Los Angeles, for instance, only 46% of voters backed a proposed tax increase for schools — far short of the two-thirds needed to pass — just months after the high-profile strike.

That aligns with another recent poll issued by PDK, a professional organization for educators, which found that most people support increasing education funding — but want to do so by cutting other government programs rather than by raising taxes.

2. More people are making up their minds on charter schools.

More people are opposed to charter schools now (39%) than in 2016 (28%). At the same time, support for charters has followed a V-like pattern — after tumbling to 39% in 2017, it climbed back up to 48% this year.

This offers only mixed evidence for the theory that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — a school choice advocate whose fumbled confirmation hearing helped make her one of President Trump’s least popular cabinet members — has turned the public against charter schools.

“In sum, the potential collapse of public approval for charters that had appeared imminent in 2017 has not occurred, but opposition has solidified among a significant minority,” write the researchers.

This also means more people have staked out a position on charters. Only 13% of Americans say they neither support nor oppose charters, down from 25% two years ago.

Still, many people are poorly informed about charters, the poll shows. The vast majority of respondents didn’t know — or answered incorrectly when asked — whether charter schools can hold religious services or charge tuition. (Legally, they can’t do either.)

3. Democrats’ racial divide on charters persists.

Between 2016 and 2018, Education Next polls found that white Democrats were growing substantially less likely to support charter schools, while support largely held steady among black and Hispanic Democrats.

The latest poll finds that racial gap is still there. (A recent poll from the pro-charter group Democrats for Education Reform shows something similar, though the margins of error in that poll are quite large.)

Black Democrats tend to back charters (55% support, while 29% oppose); Hispanic Democrats are fairly split (47% vs. 42%); and white Democrats are the most skeptical (33% vs. 57%).

Support among white Democrats has fallen substantially since 2016, and opposition among Hispanic Democrats has jumped from 24 to 42 percent. But among black Democrats, support for charters has increased 10 points since 2016, even though the NAACP has called for a ban on new charters.

Republicans are more supportive of charter schools than Democrats. And combining voters of all political leanings, there isn’t a large racial divide on the issue. That’s in part because strong support among white Republicans balances out the opposition from white Democrats.

4. Private school vouchers see an uptick in support, but voters have generally rejected them.

Education Next shows that public support for vouchers or voucher-like programs has been on an upward trajectory. Fifty-five percent of respondents say they back a universal voucher program, up 10 points from 2017. Forty-nine percent favor such a program targeted to low-income families, a 12-point jump in four years. Here too, black and Hispanic Democrats are much more supportive than white Democrats.

These findings undermines the idea of a “DeVos effect,” since the education secretary has championed public funding for private schools.

“School vouchers have gained popularity since President Trump took office in 2016,” said Marty West, a Harvard professor and the editor in chief of Education Next. “That’s something that I did not expect to see.”

Polling on school vouchers can be tricky, though, as wording matters a great deal. Voters tend to like “tax credits” more than “vouchers,” even though the policies are extremely similar. They also are fans of “choice” but not of “public expense.”

In 2017, for instance, 52% of Americans said they would oppose allowing “parents to choose a private school at public expense,” according to PDK. Asked that same year by Education Next about the same policy, voters supported it 45% to 37%. One key difference was the question wording: Education Next asks whether people back “government helping to pay the tuition” for private school.

Notably, vouchers have seen little success when put before voters directly. Just last year, Arizona voters roundly rejected a proposal to expand voucher eligibility.

“We do not claim that our results are a reliable indicator of what would happen if you put the concept on the ballot,” said West. “Political scientists have shown that there is a strong bias toward the status quo in ballot campaigns regardless of the topic.”