Watch Your Language!

Words to win by in your next school finance election by Don E. Lifto and J. Bradford Senden

Afunny thing happened in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on the way to passing a $46 million school bond during the 2000-01 school year. Through the use of a scientific telephone survey, school district officials determined residents were more than happy to upgrade their school libraries, but were significantly more tight-fisted when it came to improving school media centers. Were the superintendent and school board dealing with a case of card catalogue schizophrenia or had they discovered an important clue for marketing their facility plan?

Our research would suggest the latter: The words we use can make a big difference. The split-sample question technique used in the Cedar Rapids survey found an impressive 18 percent increase in support, well outside the margin of error, by simply substituting the term “libraries” for “media centers” in the query. Given the tight margins between winning and losing school finance elections, district leaders would be wise to watch (and test) their language.

Sample Testing
One way to gauge the impact of language is through the use of a split-sample question technique within the context of a scientific poll. The goal of this strategy is to vary the language of a question in order to evaluate the extent to which voters react differently to each split-sample. Once two versions of the question have been prepared, half of the individuals being interviewed are presented with one version while the other half of the respondents hear the second adaptation.

In order to label split-sample questions, we refer to the “A version” and the “B version” of the question. No one being interviewed hears both the A and the B versions. When all of the interviews are complete, we compare voter responses. Such a comparison teaches us a great deal about how best to communicate with voters.

To attain reliable results from split-sample questioning, it is critical to pay close attention to two technical factors related to the use of this technique. First, the demography of each half of the sample needs to be very similar. Each group should be comprised of a representative random sample of the district’s voters. Ongoing monitoring of the demography of each split-sample group, as the interviewing is being conducted, will ensure that the school district can achieve this quality-control standard. Automated monitoring of the demography of the samples should be an expectation of any reputable calling bank.

Second, it is important to remember that a split-sample question produces a higher margin of error than the common questions included in the survey because only half of the voters respond to each split-sample. Therefore, care needs to be taken when the results of the split-sample questions are compared to the responses to questions asked of all of the voters interviewed for a particular survey. Of course, if the budget allows, the sample size can be increased to the point that the margin of error for each sample group is closer to the margin of error for the rest of the survey questions.

Last, in terms of placement of split-sample questions, it is important to ensure that construction of the survey instrument, in terms of what immediately precedes and follows both versions of the probe, provides necessary context and logical sequencing.

Word Changes
Let’s look at some specifics. Each of the following examples is from a survey that was being used to determine how many voters were more likely to support a school tax proposal when presented with specific information. Each example involves presenting a short statement describing ways that the tax funds would be used.

We’ll begin with the simplest application of a split-sample question in which we intend to test the impact of changing only one word in the probe. In this example we are evaluating how voters responded to the words “expand” versus “complete.” The questions read as follows: “Bond funds will be used to [A version: complete/ B version: expand] West High School.”

In this school district, voters had a much more positive reaction to the idea that bond funds would complete the campus. This version of the statement suggested 57 percent would be more likely to support the bond while the idea of expanding the campus prompted only 46 percent to vote yes. The 11 percent difference in the response to each version of this question is well outside the margin of error for the survey from which this example is taken.

Split-sample questions also can be used to explore the impact of describing the challenge faced by a school district in terms of percentages versus numbers. One high school district knew that if it could not raise additional operating funds, it was going to be forced to increase class sizes in freshman English and history. Class sizes would increase by nine students, which would represent a 45 percent increase.

Two versions of this question were created. One read: “Without additional revenue, class sizes in freshman English and history will increase from 20 to 29.” The second version presented the same potential change in terms of a percentage: “Without additional revenue, class sizes in freshman English and history will increase by 45 percent.” The presentation of a change in class size in terms of a percentage made 69 percent of the respondents more likely to support an increase in local taxes. When the change was presented in terms of an increase in whole numbers, only 56 percent said they were more likely to support a tax increase.

Another application of the split-sample strategy is to explore the impact of presenting more information about the benefits of a specific expenditure. One school district wanted to use bond funds “to expand career development labs at district high schools.” This statement made 52 percent of those interviewed more likely to support the district’s bond proposal. When the B version of this question included an explanation that bond funds would “increase student access to hands-on vocational and technical instruction,” support went up to 61 percent.

Testing language within the context of a scientific poll also can tell you when you might be saying too much. One district needed operating funds to restore teaching positions and support staff jobs recently cut from the budget. When voters were told that funds “will be used to restore teaching positions,” 78 percent said they were more likely to vote for the proposal. But telling voters that funds will be used “to restore teaching positions and support staff” made only 63 percent more likely to vote “yes” on Election Day.

As much as this reaction overlooks the valuable role of support staff in the education of children, it is far better to know how voters will react to these statements before the campaign begins. Testing the language provides the campaign with an opportunity to make a stronger case about the importance of support staff in addition to placing greater emphasis on teachers. For that reason, we strongly recommend that key language that will be used to present a tax proposal be tested in a scientific survey before the ballot language is finalized or information is sent to the public.

The 3 C’s
Testing the impact of language through the use of split-sample questions is a key strategy within the context of a fundamental need to improve the selection and use of language in any tax campaign. Much of the communications produced by school districts and campaign committees are notoriously lacking in the 3 C’s--clear, concise and compelling language.

In post-election surveys across all types of school districts, citizens routinely blame poor communications as one of the key reasons finance elections failed in their community. Their collective fingers of blame, which are pointed at school boards and superintendents, cite jargon, legalese and “educationese” as barriers to both understanding and supporting a school district’s proposal.

To be fair, many states require specific and often obtuse language in ballot questions, making it more difficult to communicate clearly in the language actually placed on the ballot. There is no excuse, however, for district or campaign materials that fail to communicate effectively.

The following are some (albeit negative) cases in point of what not to say during your next school finance election. All of the following were taken from school district or campaign materials.

  • "Expand student access to educational continuity throughout the system and enhance learning opportunities through concentration of age groups and the associated benefits of teaming methodologies."


  • "Accommodate modern education program theory including information-age management, outcome-based education, and global education."


  • "Expansion will include technology curriculum integration into the technology/multimedia education area."


  • "New Knowledge Center will provide library, computer stations, and exploratory learning opportunities."


  • "We do not have a multipurpose/academic/performing arts/community meeting area for school and community use."


  • "The legislature severely limited the use of operating levies in the late 1980s. The attempt was to promote equity in funding across the state, but the result was a freezing of differences among districts."


  • "I can assure you that the commitment to excellence will, by its very nature, promote continued transitions into the immediate future."

In the grand jury of public opinion, these examples would no doubt result in an indictment on a charge of conspiracy to confuse and incite. And keep in mind these excerpts from school district publications were written for the express purpose of convincing citizens to invest more of their hard-earned money in their local public schools.

Arne Carlson, who served as Minnesota’s governor in the early 1990s, often chided politicians and bureaucrats who used obtuse language. In so doing, he challenged them to pass the “barbershop test,” which states if your average Joe or Jane at the barbershop can’t understand what you are talking about, the broader public can’t either. Too much of what schools produce during tax elections fails this test, confusing or alienating the very people who could be persuaded to vote yes on Election Day.

In addition to clarity, school leaders also need to be concise in producing media in support of a finance election. It is important to strike the optimal balance between providing enough information without overloading voters with volumes of text they will not read. During tax elections, it is often necessary to ramp up communications, hopefully on a foundation of continuous public relations throughout the school year. In this context, however, more is not better if more means page after page of narrative, charts and long-winded letters from the superintendent, school board presidents or PTA chairs. Rather, experienced public relations experts encourage concise messages, with appropriate supporting data repeated frequently in varying formats. Concise communications happen when more relates to the frequency of messages, not their individual length.

The last of the 3C’s, compelling, exhorts school district and campaign communicators to use the richness of language, graphics and photographs to generate passion and mental images to help voters remember the campaign’s key messages and ultimately to support the proposal. Given the limitations on what school districts can do relative to advocating passage, addressing the compelling standard is mostly left in the hands and imaginations of the campaign committee. Drawing insight from what was tested in the community survey, including split-sample questions, campaigners can effectively enhance clear and concise language with compelling messages and images designed to positively impact voters’ attitudes and ultimately their votes on Election Day.

Creative Applications
In a recent essay contest sponsored by the F. Scott Fitzgerald Writing Academy, high school students were challenged to explain a quotation from Fitzgerald’s book The Crack-up. In Fitzgerald’s words, "All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

As one might imagine, students’ interpretations of this statement were all over the literary map. While this was a great exercise in creative interpretation, it is exactly what you don’t want during a school tax election. To the contrary, media produced by the school district and campaign must be absolutely clear, concise and compelling, leaving no room for multiple interpretations about meaning and message.

One strategy in support of the 3C’s is for school leaders to test language through the use of a scientific survey of registered voters. The split-sample question technique provides the opportunity to test how voters react to specific word choices, phrases and themes and provides a clear road map that tells the campaign how to most effectively communicate with different demographic groups. Whether you’re testing libraries and media centers or checking on the difference between expanding versus completing a school campus, what you learn will improve your communication and the likelihood of success on Election Day.

Don Lifto, a superintendent for 25 years, is a senior vice president with Springsted, a public sector financial advisory firm. He can be reached at 380 Jackson St., Suite 300, St. Paul, MN 55101. E-mail: dlifto@springsted.com. Brad Senden is the managing partner at The Center for Community Opinion in San Ramon, Calif. They are co-authors of School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Success.