NEW YORK -- President Barack Obama is attacking presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on education this week in speeches, videos and radio advertisements. In Ohio on Tuesday, Obama noted that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's budget would cut $115 billion from the U.S. Education Department over the next decade.
Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.
The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the "public's attitudes toward the public schools" asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they "were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools." Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters' support, compared with Obama's 41 percent.
The findings make sense because Romney "was governor of an educationally successful state" that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Checker Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan's administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which "suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue."
But Romney's position, just 5 percentage points behind Obama on education, may be due to a lack of awareness of Obama's record, said Lily Eskelsen, a vice president of the National Education Association, the teachers' labor union. "We need to help people see the canyon of differences in education policy between the two candidates," she said, especially regarding class size.
The poll, which surveyed 1,002 adults representing the U.S. population by telephone in May and June, found "a nation divided" over several key education issues. The poll found Americans split on partisan lines over paying for educating the children of undocumented immigrants, with 52 percent opposed to offering such students free public education.
Support for charter schools, which receive public money and can be privately run, also broke down along party lines, with 54 percent overall supporting charters and 80 percent of Republicans supporting them. The overall support for charter schools declined from 70 percent to 66 percent in last year, the poll showed. Gallup consultant Valerie Calderon said the poll has a margin of error of four percentage points.
Support for school vouchers, which use public money to pay for students to attend private schools, is growing, the poll found. Forty-four percent of respondents support vouchers, which dramatically expanded this year in Indiana and Louisiana. That's an increase of 10 percentage points from 2011. School vouchers figure prominently in Romney's education platform.
Overall, 97 percent of respondents recognized the importance of improving urban schools, with 62 percent saying they would pay more taxes to fund improvements. Three-fourths said teachers need improvement. "We must look at actively institutionalizing recruitment of top talent," Eskelsen said.
But people were split on how teachers should be evaluated. Fifty-two percent favored grading teachers according to their students' standardized test scores.
"It's clear that the American people are more leery of our nation's infatuation with testing than the policymakers who require it," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, in a statement.
The poll found that the biggest problem facing public schools is lack of financial support. According to the poll, 35 percent of the respondents, and 43 percent of those who had children in public schools, chose funding as the biggest problem, dwarfing discipline, drugs and violence.
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