With the public education agenda packed during this year’s legislative session, below are some general observations about Texas voters’ attitudes toward and about the state’s public education system from over 10 years of University of Texas Polling.
1. Public education’s salience among the electorate is limited.
The size of Texas’ public school population, its particular socioeconomic makeup and the needs those create along with the state’s constitutional requirement to support and maintain “an efficient system of public free schools” means that public education is always “on the agenda” of the Texas Legislature.
Despite this, the salience, but especially the importance, of public education to voters is likely limited to those with children in the public schools, those connected to the public school system through employment, and (less so) those expecting to interface with the public school system if and when they do have children. To a large extent, the data bear this point out.
Averaging the results across six University of Texas / Texas Politics Project surveys of Texas’ registered voter population in 2022, just under one in five voters (19.5%) indicated that they have children in Texas’ public schools. While this says nothing about the relative turnout rates of parents and non-parents, this group’s overall size in the electorate is necessarily limited.
Given this, it should come as little surprise that public education rarely registers as a major statewide issue among the public, especially when put in competition with other potential priorities. Despite a range of education, or education adjacent, issues supplying consistent campaign fodder for Republican candidates during the 2022 election, the share of Texans who said that education was the most important problem facing Texas never exceeded 2% of registered voters in 6 surveys conducted that year.
And even when asked to focus more specifically on what they think the legislature should prioritize at the beginning of each session, education still finds stiff competition, and this same ceiling. At the beginning of each legislative session starting in 2013, the UT poll has asked Texas voters what the legislature should prioritize in the upcoming session — and in no session has the share who said the legislature should focus on public education exceeded 30% (this highwater mark occurred in 2013 in the wake of steep budgetary cuts in 2011). Outside of that year, the share prioritizing education for the legislature over other issues has not exceeded 22% in the five surveys conducted in February of session years since 2013 — and has been in a steady decline.
|February UT Poll||Question Type||Percent|
Even here, the results from the first three years of the prior decade may overestimate the centrality of education to voters’ priorities. Those results came in response to closed-ended questions in which voters were asked which issue was most important for the legislature to address from among a list of issues legislative leaders had already signaled they were planning to prioritize. In the three surveys conducted in February of session years beginning in 2019, the question has been changed to allow voters to provide any priority they think the legislature should address. When given this freedom, significantly fewer have raised an education related issue or concern.
While a greater share of Democrats than Republicans endorsed an educational priority in each of the six pre-session surveys, rarely was public education the top priority for Democratic voters, often competing with healthcare, gun control, and other Democratic priorities. Among Republicans, concern over immigration and the border, increasingly in recent years, tends to overwhelm other issues.
2. Voters with children in Texas’ public schools hold the public school system in higher regard than do voters without kids in the school system.
|Not very good||30%|
|Don’t know/No opinion||12%|
Most Texas voters hold, at best, lukewarm views of Texas’ public education system. In 11 surveys going back to June 2013, no more than 8% of Texas voters have ever rated Texas’ public education system as “excellent.” On each of those surveys, the plurality said the system was “good.” At the same time, combining those Texas voters who say that system is either good or excellent and comparing those results to voters say it is “not very good” or even “terrible” paints a picture of ambivalence: on average across those 11 surveys, 47% rated the system positively, 42% negatively — with a majority rating the public school system as good or excellent only twice (53% in June 2020 and 50% in June 2021).
However, among those voters with children in the public schools, a majority has rated the public school system as either excellent or good in each of the 11 surveys, with 60% of parent-voters rating the system positively, on average, compared to a third of parents (34%) who rate the system negatively. By contrast, a majority of voters without children in the public school system have never rated the overall system positively, with nearly identical shares (44% each) rating the system positively and negatively.
While the repeated item mentioned above asks voters to rate the quality of the overall system, another item asks voters whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view towards public schools. This is an important distinction, as one could see problems with the quality of the public education system, but still hold positive views about public schools, say, for their role in society as a social good. But here too, parents of public school students were significantly more positively predisposed towards public schools than those without children in the school system. In December 2022 UT/TXP polling, 55% of registered voters with children in the public schools said that they held a favorable opinion of public schools generally, compared to 24% who held an unfavorable view. Among those voters without kids in the public school system, only 40% said that they held a favorable opinion (a 15 point gap), with 33% holding an unfavorable view of public schools.
3. Partisanship impacts views of public education in Texas in divergent ways.
Republican voters tend to react more positively when asked to assess the quality of the public education system than when asked how they feel about public schools. Democrats express the opposite tendency in Texas: positive attitudes toward public schools with significantly lower evaluations of the quality of the overall system. One point of consensus can be found in that neither Democrats nor Republicans are effusive about the system, with neither parties’ voters likely to rate the system as “excellent.”
These differences likely reflect cross-pressures among both Democrats and Republicans. Among Democrats, positive predispositions towards the use of government for social goods compete with the reality of Republican control of the education system in Texas. Among Republicans, negative dispositions towards government spending and increased attention to educational institutions as socializing forces (among other things) coexist with the reality of their own institutional authority over education policy and funding.
|Not very good||36%||35%||26%|
|Don’t know/No opinion||11%||18%||10%|
|Neither favorable nor unfavorable||21%||26%||20%|
|Don't know/No opinion||3%||4%||4%|
For Democrats, this means that over those 11 surveys assessing quality, more rated the quality of the system negatively than positively on average (44% to 36%). But when asked whether they hold a favorable view of public schools in December, 61% said they did, compared to only 16% with unfavorable views.
Among Republicans, the story is not exactly the inverse, but something of a mirror image. Over the 11 surveys asking them to evaluate the quality of the system, 56% rated the system positively on average compared to 34% who rated it negatively. In February of this year, 56% said the system was either “good” or “excellent” while just 34% said it was “not very good” or “terrible.” Asked whether they have a favorable view of public schools however, and as recently as December of last year, only 31% said they did, with 45% holding unfavorable views.
4. While most voters think the state spends too little on public education, Republican voters have expressed consistent ambivalence about state spending.
Despite much publicized efforts to “fix” Texas’ formulas for funding public education while simultaneously cutting property taxes AND increasing spending levels during the 2019 legislative session, Texas voters have consistently expressed the opinion that the state spends “too little” on public education. Asked six times between October 2012 and February 2023, no more than 13% indicated that the state spends too much on public education, with the plurality or majority in each survey (between 48% and 55%) saying that the state spends too little.
|Too much||About the right amount||Too little||Don't know/No opinion|
While it’s no surprise to find consistent support among Democratic voters for more spending on public education (71% said the state was spending too little in February polling, consistent with past results), among Texas’ GOP voters there’s no clear consensus on the state’s investment in public ed.
Over the course of the time series, approximately equal shares of Republicans have said that the state is spending enough (35%) or too little (33%) with the remainder saying that the state spends too much (18% on average), but the averages hide some of the underlying dynamics. Going into a 2019 session focused on education funding formulas (a necessity due to the dual focus on property tax cuts), the plurality of Republicans, 38%, said the state was spending “too little” in February 2019 polling. By February of 2021, the plurality, 39%, said that the state was spending the right amount, while by February of this year, that plurality has grown to 42%, with 27% saying the state spends too little, and only 17% saying the state spends too much.
|Too much||About the right amount||Too little||Don't know/No opinion|
This pattern is likely related to a key partisan difference in views of the role that spending plays in fixing or improving the public education system: Democrats are more likely to think that spending results in improvements in the educational system than are Republicans. In February 2017, Texas voters were asked how effective a range of fixes, proposals, or programs would be in improving the K-12 public education system in Texas, including increasing funding. While 83% of Democrats said that increasing funding would either be “extremely” (53%) or “somewhat” (30%) effective, this was true of only 51% of Republicans, with only 21% saying increases in spending would be extremely effective, and 30% saying it would be somewhat effective.
|Not very effective||6%||17%||21%|
|Not at all effective||4%||13%||17%|
5. Texas voters don’t like cuts to the public education budget, but once those cuts are made...
It’s unsurprising to find few Texans who openly endorse taking money out of the public education system, but once cuts are made, there’s surprisingly little clamor from those same voters to make the system whole again.
Faced with impending budget cuts in 2011, 82% of Texas voters said the state should not reduce funding for public education in February 2011 polling — including 74% of Texas Republicans. This result recurred in May of that year when 85% said the legislature should not make cuts to primary and secondary education in their attempts to balance the state’s budget.
However, by the beginning of the following session, when informed of the $5.4 billion cut to the public education budget during the last session in February 2013 polling, Texans were significantly less certain that the legislature should restore those cuts as they were in opposing the cuts in the first place. Only 62% said the cuts should be restored in their entirety, with 38% now feeling that public education funding in Texas was, in fact, good enough. This included 61% of Republicans.
By 2015, given a significant budget surplus heading into that session, voters were asked what they thought would be the best use of those additional funds from among the options being floated. Only 17% said that the state should increase public education funding (which, at the time, had not been restored to pre-2011 levels), compared to 21% who wanted to see a property tax cut. While 27% of Democrats wanted to see an increase in public education funding, this was true of only 9% of Republicans. Funding would end up getting addressed again in 2019, but only due to the sustained drive to lower property taxes.
6. Stamping out “wokism” in the classroom while making it easier for parents to remove their children from the system entirely isn’t new, but the political context has changed dramatically.
In May 2010, asked to evaluate different problems facing the public education system, 77% of Texas voters said a lack of parental involvement was a “major problem” — including near equal shares of Democrats and Republicans — more than said the same about funding, teacher quality, or any number of other issues. In this case, it wasn’t that voters saw the education system as keeping parents out so much as a society in which parents weren’t involved enough in their children’s education.
Asked four years later in February and June of 2014 how effective different solutions and programs might be at improving Texas’ public education system, the plurality of Republicans said that creating school voucher program would be “extremely effective” (27% in February, with 23% saying it would be the most effective policy solution in June of that year). Vouchers, put in a list with other education proposals (e.g. increasing teacher pay, reducing the number of standardized tests, etc.) were already popular, but as a means of improving the system (whether that makes sense or not) and not necessarily as a check on that system.
By the time the legislative session rolled around, February 2015 polling found creating a school voucher program near the top of the list for Republican voters (33% said it would be “extremely effective” at improving the public education system, 31% said “somewhat effective”), trailing only one other proposal: “allowing more localized control over curriculum and standards” (40% extremely effective, 38% somewhat effective).
|Increasing the pay of public school teachers||81%||64%||56%|
|Increasing opportunities for online learning||69%||68%||65%|
|Reducing the number of standardized tests students must take||69%||51%||61%|
|Allowing more localized control over curriculum and standards||48%||52%||78%|
|Increasing funding for the public school system||85%||57%||44%|
|Making it easier for charter schools to open and operate||44%||51%||71%|
|Expanding state-funded, pre-kindergarten programs||78%||56%||34%|
|Creating a school voucher program||35%||40%||64%|
Comparing the energy in the Republican-led legislatures of 2015 and 2023 illustrates the shift in politics at the intersection of the location of government authority and public education in both Republican voters’ attitudes and the policy direction taken by GOP elected officials. While much attention has been paid to the shifting centrality of the notion of ”local control” in the intervening years, these results remind that not very long ago, the policy preference of the state’s GOP voters was to localize educational control (likely to provide more flexibility to instill conservative values in lessons in smaller, more rural locales). Now, the mix of COVID’s impact on education, progressive lesson planning around race and gender in likely Democratic-leaning ISDs, and political opportunism has led the state’s Republican leadership to pursue a path to greater centralization of educational instruction amidst a reinvigorated push for a voucher-like ESA program.
While well-publicized conservative activism in school board elections suggests a renewed push for a more literal from of local control, those efforts are taking place amidst concurrent efforts to reduce local authority and autonomy, and a general decline in regard for public schools at the institutional level – particularly among non-parents and Republicans, two numerically large groups of voters. Both serve to provide additional political scaffolding for the latest push on diverting state resources to alternatives to the public school system, like ESAs.
7. Governor Abbott receives slightly higher marks from voters for his handling of public education than do “state leaders and the legislature.”
Asked at the end of the last session whether they approve or disapprove of the job state leaders and the legislature were doing handling K-12 public education in Texas, 42% disapproved, while only 26% said that they approved. At the same time, asked how Governor Abbott was handling public education four times in 2022, at least 35% approved on each survey, as high as 40% in each of August and October 2022 polling (38% and 37% disapproved, respectively).
Some of this might be institutional and/or circumstantial: while the legislature is generally tasked with the operation of the public school system through statute and funding, the Governor, often, gets to pick and choose which education policies or priorities he will highlight based on a read of the political landscape. It’s easy enough to point to the legislature when there are failures in the system, or issues that need resolving, and easier still to highlight successes and/or potential policies that voters, or certain subsets of voters, approve of when advantageous — especially given the different baseline evaluations, and priorities of parents and non-parents, especially among the state’s majority party voters.
Like other education attitudes already noted, it’s not clear that Texans’ negativity towards the public education system and its managers is being driven by parents with kids in public schools. When parents with children in public schools are asked to rate the job state leaders and the legislature are doing, 37% approve, 34% disapprove; among non-parents, 24% approve, 43% disapprove. Asked about Abbott, 46% of parents approved in October 2022, 31% disapproved; among non-parents, 37% approved, 35% disapproved. In some ways, it could be this state of affairs, in which non-parents generally lament the system and the elected officials responsible for it significantly more than those who actually interact with the system that creates the political space to engage in policy that serves the political goals of GOP parents and non-parents alike. While the legislature has to answer thorny questions about how far, exactly, parental rights go while also making sure the system can hire and support enough teachers, for example, the governor can, more simply, selectively point out its failings, selectively propose solutions regardless of their likelihood of passage or effectiveness (that often play to the views of non-parents), and claim success if and/or when successes come along — regardless of their origin.