Most N.J. Residents Happy with Local Public School Education, Poll Finds.

September 7, 2011

Despite two years in which school reform was at the forefront of the political debate in New Jersey, a majority of the state’s residents are happy with the education provided by their local public schools, according to a poll released Tuesday.

But at the same time, many said they would not object to merging districts if it meant lower taxes.

The poll of 1,000 likely voters, conducted for the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy, found 70 percent of those questioned were very or somewhat satisfied with local public teachers and school quality. Thirty-nine percent said New Jersey spends too little on K-12 education, compared with 27 percent who said the state spends too much.

"Whatever politicians out there are saying about public schools, when you get down to it, most people are having a very positive experience," said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Meanwhile, the tide of public opinion on school consolidation may be turning. Of those polled, 63 percent said they strongly or somewhat favored district mergers in exchange for lower property taxes.

"It was a major turnoff before," said Leila Sadeghi, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership at Kean. "Obviously, citizens didn’t want to give up home rule."

Since 1982, just four regional school districts have been created, said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

"It’s not for lack of trying," he said. "The big obstacle is property taxes. After regionalization, each town gets new tax rates, and usually one town’s taxes go down and another town’s taxes go up."

The move doesn’t always lead to lower costs. Under state law, if two districts merge, the teachers’ contract from the larger district, which is usually more generous, takes effect for all teachers, Yaple said.

"It’s not the easy panacea that some people believe it might be," he said.

The Kean poll looked at a host of other educational issues. Merit pay (tying teacher pay to student performance as opposed to contractual raises) was supported by 75 percent of those polled. Baker said this question was posed without describing how merit pay could be implemented, which he said would necessitate "a massive increase in standardized testing."

As for standardized test results, 68 percent of those polled said they are very or somewhat important in measuring a school or district’s success. Lynne Lenches-Derwid, a social studies teacher at Hillsborough High School, said parents like to see how their kids stack up.

"They find comfort in it. It validates how their kid is performing, so it doesn’t surprise me," she said. "I just think there’s so much more to an education ... than just a test score. Some of the most intelligent people and successful people out there are just not test takers."

The poll also found voters continue to be split on charter schools, with 39 percent favoring them and 35 percent opposed to increasing their numbers in New Jersey as part of a statewide plan to improve student performance.

"It is a somewhat divisive issue, and it’s partly because charter schools themselves have a very mixed record," Baker said. "There is some concern about the rapid and large-scale expansion of something that is not necessarily a better or superior option."

Rick Pressler, director of school services for the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said the results show voters don’t know enough about charter schools — 26 percent responded "not sure."

"This can influence a respondent’s answer — either positively or negatively," Pressler said.

The poll, taken Aug. 29 and Aug. 30, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.