MARYLANDERS are no dummies. They're accurate in their estimation of the quality of public schools, and they're willing to pay to improve them - even in stressful economic times.
These are conclusions drawn from a new poll for The Sun, which since 1998 has surveyed Maryland voters' thoughts on everything from slot machines to presidential elections.
As in previous years, more people list education as the "most important problem" confronting the state - "the one you would most like to see the governor and legislature do something about" - than any other issue.
Twenty-six percent of those surveyed rate education as the primary concern.
"To use an old phrase, 'It's education, stupid,' " said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the Bethesda firm that conducted the poll.
"Whoever wants to be the next governor is going to have to be committed to adequately funding and protecting public education."
Voter assessment of the public schools has risen gradually since 1998.
This year, respondents on the whole gave local schools a grade of about C-plus, with 47 percent giving A's and B's and 40 percent C's, D's and F's. The remarkable, almost startling aspect of this estimation is how closely it parallels student performance.
Baltimore City voters, for example, give their schools the lowest grades, and Baltimore schools have the lowest scores on state tests.
Voters in top-performing Howard County give their schools the highest grades. In between, among Washington- and Baltimore-area districts, there's a perfect match between image, as reflected in the poll results, and performance: from lowest to highest, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties.
Haller pointed to two other remarkable findings: Substantial majorities in Prince George's and Baltimore City list education as their most important priority.
And similarly huge majorities in the two jurisdictions (79 percent in Prince George's, 68 percent in Baltimore) favor increasing the state sales tax from 5 to 6 percent if the money is earmarked for education.
"I wouldn't mind an increase at all," said Della McKoy of Northeast Baltimore, one of those who support the increase. "City schools are functioning on a shoestring budget, and things aren't going to get any better without more state aid. If it led to some quality students, that kind of sacrifice would seem very little to me."
Noting the high costs of welfare and incarceration, McKoy said, "I'd rather be paying for education at this end than for a lack of education at the other end."
Haller noted that "almost every other voter" in Prince George's believes the state needs to step up support for the public schools.
"Prince George's is a pretty unified community with one of the nation's most highly educated African-American populations. And the more educated people are, the more interested they are in improving public education," he said.
There is clearly a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here: Families move to Howard County because they believe the schools are high quality.
And when they arrive, their children make the schools even better. Parents are pleased that the schools are better. Voters in Howard give their neighborhood schools the highest grades in Central Maryland. They are also, according to the poll, the least willing in the area to pay a penny more on the state sales tax in support of education.
The usual cautionary notes: The Maryland Poll is a survey of likely voters, not of the general public. It's not a poll of parents, although, of course, many voters are parents.
The poll, conducted Jan. 2 through Monday, surveyed 1,200 voters by telephone.
Survey finds lawmakers choosing private schools
The Heritage Foundation is a conservative group that strongly favors school choice. Recently, it surveyed members of Congress, asking them where they had sent - or are now sending - their children to school.
The result: Members of Congress are four times more likely than the general public to choose private schools. Nearly 41 percent of representatives and 46 percent of senators have sent or are sending children to private school. About 10 percent of the general public does so.
The foundation points out that Congress regularly rejects measures that would allow students from poor families to attend the schools of their choice.
If members who chose private schools had voted with choice supporters in the past three years, said Krista Kafer and Jonathan Butcher, authors of the study, "every piece of parental choice legislation would have passed."