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SCHOOLS IN BAD SHAPE, POLL SAYS - EXCEPT THE ONES RESPONDENTS KNOW

These days, the conventional wisdom holds that U.S. education is in bad shape. It's hard to find a candidate in this election year who doesn't reaffirm that belief.

So, it came as no surprise last week that Americans gave low marks to U.S. public schools when Phi Delta Kappa, the professional education fraternity, released its 24th annual Gallup poll on the state of American education. Fewer than a fifth of the poll's respondents - 18 percent - gave the nation's schools an "A" or a "B" while 22 percent gave them a "D" or an "F."What I found interesting was how the opinions changed when Americans were asked to grade the schools they know best. When grading public schools in their own communities, 40 percent assigned them the grades of "A" or "B" while only 17 percent listed the failing grades of "D" or "F." And the poll's respondents were even more positive when asked about the public school where their oldest child attends. About two-thirds - 64 percent - awarded an "A" or "B" to the public school where their oldest child attends. The beneficiaries of a good education - college graduates with high incomes - were the respondents who were most generous in their grading.

These results, though interesting, aren't new, by the way. In each poll for years, Americans have slammed schools in general but praised the ones they know best - schools in their own communities.

While respondents like their own schools, they don't have much faith in politicians to fix any educational problems. President Bush, the self-described "education president," received an "A" or a "B" from only 15 percent of the respondents when they were asked to rate the president's efforts to improve education. Congress, however, scored even worse, receiving a good or superior grade from only 7 percent. State governors received an "A" or "B" from 19 percent while legislators were given the high marks from 14 percent.

The depth of the public's dissatisfaction is reflected in the fact that the percentage of respondents assigning a grade of "`D" or "F" for school-improvement efforts reaches 52 percent for Congress, 46 percent for Bush, 41 percent for governors and 40 percent for state legislators.

Despite all of the politicians' boasting of bold leadership, people just don't believe their elected officials have done much to improve schools.

Also, for the first time since 1970, the public puts "lack of proper financial support" at the top of the problems facing the public schools. "Use of drugs," which since 1986 had occupied the No. 1 slot, fell to second. "Lack of discipline" was third, followed by a related problem - "fighting, violence and gangs." Of note to Utahns, whose schools are at the bottom of national financial rankings, Westerners were more likely to see under-financing as a problem than Easterners, whose schools generally receive larger per-pupil expenditures.

The poll also shows support for a number of changes in the public schools. They include the adoption of a longer school year of 210 days (55 percent) similar to the school-year of Japanese schools; use of school buildings by non-school agencies to provide social and welfare services for students before and after school (77 percent); preschool programs to help prepare children from low-income and poverty households (74 percent); use of national standardized tests (71 percent) despite opposition from the National Education Association; and distribution of condoms in the public schools (68 percent) through programs similar to those now used in the nation's big cities.

In that list, the free distribution of condoms is the one poll item that got a lot of national publicity. It would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, but public opinion has been influenced by the AIDS epidemic, the poll's authors said.

Considering the flap raised during the last year over the sex education resource guide for teachers, that's one change where the response from Utahns would likely differ from their fellow Americans.

This poll, despite the election-year rhetoric, may indicate that American education isn't as bad off as some would have us think.