A new statewide poll released Thursday by the Tennessee Federation for Children shows that when voters receive information about Education Savings Accounts, they are overwhelmingly supportive of a program being passed by the Tennessee Legislature.
The poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Inc. of 625 registered Tennessee voters was conducted between January 31 and February 4, and has a margin of error of +/- 4 percent.
Six survey questions were asked during the telephone interview, in addition to participant demographics such as the region of the state, sex, age, race and party identification.
The initial question presented to interviewees, “Education Savings Accounts, also known as E-S-A-s, allows parents to use their education tax dollars to customize their child’s learning and development. Approved ESA expenses include technical training, K-12 school tuition, or even special needs therapies from an array of providers, including public and private schools or tutors. Knowing this, would you support or oppose the Legislature passing an ESA program in Tennessee? “
An overwhelming 78 percent of respondents statewide said they support ESAs, of which 54 percent said they “strongly support” the Legislature passing an ESA program. The highest support came from East Tennessee, where 57 percent “strongly support” an ESA program, and in West Tennessee, the lowest at only 49 percent, “strongly support” the program.
Overall, the difference in the three grand divisions is not as great when comparing a combined response of “strongly support” and “somewhat support,” with East Tennessee at 79 percent, Middle Tennessee at 78 percent and West Tennessee at 75 percent.
Although the state’s annual educational assessment TN Ready has long been criticized for ongoing problems, just 36 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to support legislation for ESAs in Tennessee if independent schools using ESAs would not be required to administer the TN Ready testing.
However, the knowledge that “Governor Bill Lee very strongly supports providing Tennessee families with Education Savings Accounts,” made 47 percent of the respondents “more likely” to support the Legislature passing an ESA program in Tennessee.
Shaka Mitchell, Tennessee State Director of American Federation for Children, in his release of the poll results said, “This widespread support cuts across party lines and each of the Grand Divisions.”
To The Tennessee Star, Mitchell commented on the take-away for newly-elected state leaders, “During many campaigns last year, candidates spoke boldly about parent choice in education. I think the polling shows that voters were listening and now expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”
Critics of ESAs, or school choice in general, generally cite the risks of government overreach into private schools or taxpayer dollars going to schools that don’t meet certain educational criteria.
With regard to safeguards that ensure independent schools accepting ESA funding would not be required to administer the state’s troubled educational assessment, TN Ready, Mitchell told The Star, “Schools have a purpose – educating students. So we need to know how they’re doing. But schools that are already getting the job done should not be required to change their methods.”
Mitchell also explained about independent schools that ESA funds could potentially be directed to, “Tennessee actually has several safeguards in place to ensure that only schools that meet certain expectations could participate in a program. But at the end of the day, educational freedom and religious freedom are linked, and parents, not bureaucrats are in the best position to decide how and what their children learn.”
In terms of whether Education Savings Accounts are either a Republican or Democrat issue, Mitchell told The Star, “I don’t think this issue should be a partisan one, but it’s hard to imagine any so-called ‘conservative’ looking at these polling numbers and still failing to support families that want the best for their children.”
The results of the poll indicate that support for Education Savings Accounts crossed party lines.
The majority of self-identified Independents and Democrats polled either “support” or “strongly support” ESAs, by a plus 59- and 49-percent margin, respectively, over those who “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the Tennessee Legislature’s passing of an ESA program.
Consistently across the polling questions, however, support is strongest amongst Republicans, who also made up the largest block at 40 percent of the poll respondents. However, the percentage of Republican respondents is lower than that of Tennessee General Assembly which holds a supermajority in both houses with 26 of 33 Senators and 73 of 99 Representatives, as well as a Republican governor.
The full results of the poll can be read here.
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