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Nearly half of Pittsburgh-area adults recommend high schoolers get vocational/technical training over college

A hallway in the Sto-Rox High School.
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
The Sto-Rox School District will hold an off-campus town hall on Monday to discuss it's financial recovery plan.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

It’s a truism of modern politics that Americans don’t just have differing ideas about the direction their country should go: They practically live in different countries, insulated from each other by social media and partisan news.

Take Pennsylvania’s own U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, who has been much in the news — arguably too much in the news — because the Senate has eased its dress code so he can dress in his signature fashion-backward style.

Supporters see Fetterman as a refreshingly genuine public servant who overcame a stroke and struggles with depression. More agnostic constituents might suspect his political stardom owes less to a mastery of policy than to a genius for political gestures that drive Republicans crazy — such as wearing cargo shorts on the Senate floor or hanging marijuana flags from his former office window. And then there are those who believe that at some point he stopped being “John Fetterman” entirely, and became a zombie replicant inserted in his place by shadowy forces that … well, I don’t want to give away the plot of Plan 9 From Outer Space if you haven’t seen it.

But if you really want to see realities diverge, look at the debate over public schools. Some of us see buildings full of teachers doing their best in under-resourced institutions. Others see a mix of high-functioning districts and dead-end facilities that students need vouchers to escape … and still others fret about indoctrination centers teaching alien values.

We may not be able to reconcile these viewpoints. But thanks to WESA’s ongoing partnership with Pittsburgh-based market research firm Campos, we can point to some underlying dynamics that drive them. Based on a survey of 400 adults from Allegheny and surrounding counties, we can say the following: Ideology drives perceptions of what those schools should focus on, while proximity shapes how satisfied you are with the job they are doing.

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When asked about the top issues facing public education today, “overall academic quality” and school safety topped the list — not surprising, given mass shooting headlines and the fact that academic quality is what schools are supposed to be about.

But when we break out responses by party, we get a sharply different view of priorities. Most notably, fully 43 percent of Republican respondents list “teaching that aligns with my/my family’s values” as a top-three priority for schools. Only 5 percent of Democrats do.

It’s possible Democrats just care less about values, but other responses suggest they may worry less about the values being taught because they feel more in common with those doing the teaching. Democratic respondents were twice as likely as Republicans to cite teacher retention and staffing levels as a top concern, for example.

Democrats were also twice as likely as Republicans to worry about student mental health, and nearly four times as likely to prioritize the creation of an “inclusive environment for all students.”

Meanwhile, disparities in funding between districts was rated as a top concern among Democrats, whereas only 12 percent of Republicans thought it was a priority. But fully one-quarter of GOP respondents said a priority should be to send children to the school of their choosing, something only 5 percent of Democrats saw as a top-of-mind concern.

But while you’d never know it from the political discourse, most people seem satisfied with their schools … though satisfaction varies depending on how connected you are to the schools you’re being asked about.

More than half of survey respondents, 55 percent, said they were either “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the schools in their district, with nearly a quarter of respondents giving their district the top grade. Just 24 percent said they were “somewhat” or “very dissatisfied.”

People of color expressed slightly elevated levels of dissatisfaction with their districts. But the biggest outlier involved responses from Pittsburgh: 40 percent of city dwellers said they were dissatisfied, compared to just 18 percent in the rest of Allegheny County.

In general, though, respondents were more critical of districts where they didn’t live. Asked about the quality of K-12 schools in the state as a whole, only 9 percent say they are very satisfied, and the overall portion of respondents expressing some level of satisfaction drops from 55 to 46 percent.

We see a larger opinion swing when we look at whether people currently have kids in the school district they’re being asked about. Among respondents with school-age kids, almost three-quarters said they were either “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their district, whereas fewer than half of those without kids at home rated the schools positively.

Which makes sense: Parents know their own schools best, and that first-hand experience may provide a counterweight to all the overheated political rhetoric.

In fact, if any result did surprise me, it was the broad agreement on what kids should do after they graduate.

We asked respondents: “If you were giving advice to a high school graduate today, what path would you suggest they take?”

Nearly half, 46 percent, said they’d urge students to go into vocational education or technical training. That’s slightly more than would recommend college: 28 percent said they’d urge getting a bachelor’s degree, while another 13 would recommend getting an advanced degree.

There was little variation by race or political party, though respondents who make six-figure incomes were more likely to say they’d recommend college. And while our sample of parents of children under age 6 was small, they were overwhelmingly likely to recommend vo-tech, preferring it to college by margins of greater than two-to-one.

Rising college costs and a nationwide reappraisal of the value of skilled labor may explain these numbers. So might concerns that a liberal arts degree doesn’t qualify you for much more than writing political newsletters. But I blame Fetterman. Sure, he went to Harvard, but he dresses like he spent years after high school installing HVAC systems — and look at him now!

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.