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In a poll released Monday, 2,000 registered voters ranked making schools safe from gun violence and college affordability the most important education issues in California, far higher than early education, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top priority on his children’s policy agenda.

The nonprofit policy and research organization PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education conducted the annual online poll during the first week in January. That was days before Los Angeles Unified teachers went on a seven-day strike. Among the poll’s other findings, large majorities said they support teachers’ right to strike. They also indicated solid support for an initiative headed to the ballot next year that would increase businesses’ property taxes, a direct challenge to Proposition 13, the tax cutting initiative approved by voters in 1978.

In the state budget that he presented last month, Newsom proposed spending $1.8 billion, a historic amount, for early childhood education and well-being, including money to pave the way for full-day kindergarten for all children and, within three years, full-day preschool for all low-income students. Studies in the Getting Down to Facts reports, released by Stanford University last fall, document the need and benefits of early education in the state.

Legislative leaders have indicated they’re fully behind the spending. The poll, however, indicates that support for early childhood education, although high, lags behind other issues among potential voters — particularly when it comes to questions of spending.

Asked to rate a list of a dozen education priorities in California from least to most important on a scale of 1 to 10, increasing access to early education ranked ninth, with 30 percent of respondents rating it most important and an additional 49 percent rating it important.

That was behind three issues that have received more media attention nationally: reducing gun violence in schools (56 percent ranking it most important and 32 percent important), making college more affordable (45 percent most important and 42 percent important) and reducing the teacher shortage (36 percent most important and 50 percent important). Only two of the dozen issues, — increasing school choice and expanding the number of charter schools — failed to get at least 70 percent support.

The latest poll doesn’t conflict with other surveys (see here and here) showing strong support for expanding early education in California. The difference is that this poll asked voters to rate early education compared to other priorities and asked which deserve more funding.

Asked to choose among a half-dozen specific “cradle to career” education spending options, participants ranked expanding pre-K education programs fourth and providing pre-natal care and childcare for children age 0–3 last, far behind improving  the quality of K-12 schools, keeping college affordable and ensuring career readiness for students under age 21.

On another question, only 47 percent favored more spending on childcare and education for children up to age 5, while 35 percent opposed it. Those supporting more spending were about evenly split between paying for the additional programs by increasing taxes (47 percent) or by cutting spending for other programs (43 percent), with 10 percent saying they didn’t know.

These findings suggest, the poll’s authors wrote, that Newsom and legislators “may need to do a better job selling the importance” of an investment in early childhood education.

Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, an organization that advocates for policy changes and investments in early learning, agreed with that conclusion.

“People are starting to talk about early learning now that the new administration is giving substantial money to it for the first time,” she said. “That presents an opportunity to explain its value.”

Adding that she understands why people are more concerned about the possibility of gun attacks in schools, Lozano said that an important role of early learning programs is children’s health and welbeing: helping them make friends and feel comfortable in school as well as to identify behavior issues and provide resources early to parents, child-care providers and teachers that can  prevent violence.

Next week will mark the first anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where the gunman, a former student, shot to death 17 students and staff and injured another 17 — a massacre that galvanized the nation’s anger over guns and school violence. Reflecting their continuing concern, poll respondents rated gun safety in schools their top priority. More than a majority of all demographic groups ranked it as most important, along with 55 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Republicans.

Respondents indicated they support a range of policy solutions — except arming teachers, which most strongly oppose. The strongest support was for expanding public mental health options, but a majority of voters viewed installing metal detectors, hiring additional armed security and practicing active shooter drills more often in schools as most or very important.

Other findings included:

Local Control Funding Formula: Six years after passage of the state’s landmark school funding and accountability law, only 25 percent of voters said they had heard or had read about it, although that figure was up from 17 percent last year. Involvement in funding formula activities, such as participation in district Local Control and Accountability Plan meetings, more than doubled to 11 percent last year, the survey found.

Parent involvement was more extensive; 44 percent of respondents who are parents with children reported they were invited to an LCAP meeting, and 27 percent attended.

California School Dashboard: Nearly two-thirds of voters with children in school said they were familiar with the dashboard, the website that uses a color rating system to show the performance of districts, schools and student groups on a range of metrics, including test scores, chronic absences and preparation of high school students for college and careers. And 40 percent had visited the site. Far fewer parents without kids in schools knew about the site.

Right to strike: Voters overwhelmingly supported teachers’ right to strike in general — 64 percent in favor to 24 percent opposed — and that rose to 67 percent in favor and 20 percent opposed when asked if they would support a teachers’ strike over pay and benefits. Even when told that a strike could “disrupt the lives of families and hurt students,” voters backed teachers’ rights 63 percent to 29 percent. The differences in support between parent and non-parent voters were small.

Benefits of college: Perhaps partly reflecting worries over college affordability, the poll authors observed, voters expressed some skepticism about the financial worth of a college degree. Their views averaged 5.63 on a 1-to-10 scale when asked about the certainty that a degree would lead to a middle-class life. African-American and Hispanic voters expressed more optimism than whites and Asian Americans.

Proposition 13: An initiative that qualified for the statewide ballot next year would amend Prop. 13 to require properties owned by businesses to be re-assessed at current value annually. This “split-roll” approach would raise an estimated $11 billion, of which about $4 billion would go to schools and community colleges. Respondents back the idea 55 percent to 35 percent opposed, with Democrats favoring it 69 to 21 percent and Republicans opposing it 42 to 51 percent. Business groups are vowing an expensive campaign to defeat the initiative.

The survey was conducted in English, and participants were representative of the state’s demographics and political party affiliation. The margin of error for the entire survey was estimated to be plus/minus 2.19 percent.

The poll’s authors are Heather Hough, the executive director of PACE; Julie Marsh, professor at the USC Rossier School of Education; David Plank, a senior fellow and former executive director of PACE, and Morgan Polikoff, associate professor at the USC Rossier School of Education.

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