Discussing Findings from our 2019 Surveying the Military Report
The authors of our latest report get together to talk about active-duty military families' views on education and school choice
Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy, joins EdChoice’s Paul DiPerna and Drew Catt to cover the biggest takeaways from their recent report, 2019 Surveying the Military. They discuss the most surprising results, similarities and differences with other parent surveys, methodology and more.
Click to listen, or read the full transcript below.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. I’m here to talk about our newest research, areport I had a small part in called, 2019 Surveying the Military: What America’s Active Duty Service Members and Spouses Think About Military Life and K–12 Education.
I’m here today with lead author is Paul DiPerna, EdChoice’s vice president of research and innovation, and Dr. Lindsey Burke, who’s director of the Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education for the Heritage Foundation to have a conversation about our report. Thanks for joining me today, Paul and Lindsey.
Lindsey Burke: Thanks for having us.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah, thanks a lot Drew. This is great.
Drew Catt: Lindsey, would you mind starting us off by talking about the changing nature of military life?
Lindsey Burke: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question. If you talk to folks who have looked at the history of the military over the decades, and really for more than a century, it has changed significantly if you go back a century or so. I mean, it used to be that military families got all of their services on base, right?
You went to the doctor on base, your child attended school on base, there was a commissary on base, life was on base. What we’ve seen, though, over the decades and over the past century, in particular, is that a lot of these services and families moved off of the base.
The military population broadly started integrating with the civilian population outside of base. So now, if we think about schools, in particular the vast majority of children in active duty military families end up attending a school, not on the base, but the local public school that is closest to the base to which their parent is assigned.
And if you have at a data that’s about 80 percent, of military children, are attending public schools off base. It’s a large portion of the kids and really, I think a good indication of the changing nature of military life.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s fascinating. What about when it comes to where students that are dependence of active duty military members. Where they are living in states and whether or not the state has a voucher tax credit scholarship program, or education savings account, or ESA?
Lindsey Burke: Yeah, so that’s another really interesting question. So, if we look at the universe of children from military families of those who attend public schools, about 96 percent of them are doing so off base at a nearby public school. And so just 4 percent of kids are actually attending a DOD school on base.
I think that’s important to contextualize the findings from our paper. Then if we look at, OK, we’ve got military families who are integrating with the civilian population when it comes to where they live and the services that they have access to.
What does it mean specifically for the options that they have, when it comes to where their child attend school? Well, it is very clear from the research that we’ve done that the vast majority of children in military families get an assignment just like their active duty parent gets an assignment.
The parent is assigned to a base, the child is assigned to a public school nearest that base. That becomes an issue when you consider the options at the state level that might be available to give those families some flexibility beyond their school assignment.
We looked across the country and found that half of all children of active-duty military families live in states with no private school choice options whatsoever. Basically, for them, it’s the nearby assigned public school and that’s it.
Which can—we can talk about this later—but have considerable implications for military life and recruitment and retention. I would just add that if we look at the state with the largest concentration of military families that’s California and Texas.
Those two states have no private school choice options whatsoever. The two states with the largest number of military families basically give them no choices when it comes to something as critical to them as their children’s education.
Drew Catt: Wow. Yeah, that’s tough. Now, before we dive into too many of the findings, Paul, would you mind taking the time to provide our listeners with some background of surveys of military families?
Paul DiPerna: Sure. So, in recent years, the last few years, we’ve seen several surveys of military families that have been conducted not only by EdChoice, but some other organizations. The Military Times teamed up with the Collaborative for Student Success to conduct their own survey in 2017.
One interesting finding was that seven out of 10 respondents in that survey found that moving between states really created some big challenges for their children’s education.
And 40 percent of those respondents, said that they declined or would even decline a career-advancing job and stay at their current duty station if it meant that their child could remain in a high-performing school.
That particular survey by the Military Times and Collaborative for Student Success shed some light on these really big decisions that military families face that are pretty unique compared to other families of school-age children.
Then a second series of surveys that been conducted since 2009, come from the Blue Star Family surveys. They’ve been doing an annual survey of military households, not just active duty, but also veterans as well and military spouses.
They have really done a lot. They teamed up with a center from Syracuse to conduct these annual surveys where they’ve really looked at stressors on military families when it comes to changing duty stations.
Other types of adversities that service members, veteran, spouses face that can affect not just education, but they asked much broader set of questions that extend into other areas, and other types of policy domains.
But in their most recent release in 2018, they found that dependent children’s education was one of their top five issues. And 42 percent of spouses gave that response and 34% percent—about one third of service members themselves—offered that response.
Education is definitely front and center in their mind as a priority. We’ve learned a lot and we’ve looked at EdChoice along with collaborating and teaming up with you, Lindsey. We’ve been able to develop our own questionnaire and really focus on education reform areas and questions particularly around choice.
Whether it’s education savings accounts, also called ESAs, school vouchers, charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and we’ve been able to really focus in on this particular part of education policy, education reform. We conducted our first survey together a couple of years ago in 2017.
That was a survey both of active-duty servicemembers and veterans. And with a multi-mode methodology, which is a little bit different than what we did this time around. For this particular report, we really focused on active duty service members and their spouses.
We even were able to reach households where you had both members of the household in active duty. They were both a spouse and an active-duty servicemember, which is pretty interesting. And made a much larger sample size, this time around, which allows for some deeper analysis into different demographics.
Also, it gives us a little bit more increased confidence in the differences that we pick up between responses. That’s something we tried to do a little bit differently than our methods a couple years ago.
I think we found a lot of interesting information when it comes to education reforms and school choice, but also what issues and what challenges are facing military households, even outside of education.
Drew Catt: Yeah, so while poring over the cross tabs and creating the charts and tables for the report. What jumped out to me the most was how the majority of the 1,295 active-duty households that responded to our survey this spring, thought that K–12 education, in our fair nation is going in the right direction.
That’s was a good thing. But that’s not something I’m used to seeing when looking at our national or state level polling data, where it’s typically maybe a single demographic group has an overall positive margin.
That is, they are more positive about the direction than they are negative about the direction. What findings took each of you by surprise?
Lindsey Burke: Well, I would say that that finding actually really jumped out to me as well. I think it’s one of those issues and you’re correct to note, if you look at polling that this isn’t entirely inconsistent with what we see in general. That subgroup differences can really change what we see in terms of family feelings toward their local school.
But I always think about it similar to how we think about members of Congress, right? People generally don’t like Congress, but they tend to like their member. I think the similar phenomenon with education, whether it’s for military families to the civilian population.
That people tend to agree that education has room for improvement, but they tend to like their own school. And you form relationships with teachers and administrators and all those things that we would want to school to do.
That could be something that we’re seeing in the data here, but definitely interesting. It’s good though to know, right? I mean, it’s a positive finding to see that schools are I would think, as a result of this being responsive to military families.
Maybe just over time learning more about their needs and the unique nature of military life.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I agree. I think that it was a little bit surprising that we did see that these respondents were more likely to be positive about the direction as opposed to negative. We also in some of the other data, we see how they would rate their local school district in terms of a lot of communications with parents and different types of services they’re providing parents.
There was a range there were they rated some things more highly than others. But we also see—we can get this in a few minutes—but that points to me that it’s not zero sum. So, if people were satisfied or somewhat more likely to be positive about their experiences of the school districts or with their public schools.
That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be anti-choice, or they’re going to be opposed to education, savings accounts, vouchers, and charter schools.
We see the opposite, where you can have both and so people, they may, at that point in time, when they’re taking the survey and doing the interview. They’ll be relatively satisfied with their current situation, or what they’ve had as their experience.
But then we see that the support for education savings accounts and charter schools, other forms of choice, and some other areas of education reform are very much positive. And they are highly supportive of those types of policies.
I think that’s one thing that I take away, and we’ve seen in some of our other polling to where there’s positive responses and sentiment in both areas. Real quick back to what jumped out to me as surprising. To me is some of the contextual questions that we asked that were not directly related to education or to school choice, but really matters that are affecting the household or to service members directly. We did a net promoter score question where we asked how likely the service member or the spouse would be recommend military life career to their friends or colleagues.
On balance, they’re still positive. Forty-five percent of the respondents were still promoters of military service. That was a little bit lower than what we saw a couple of years ago. That was a little bit surprising, by I believe, about 10 to 11 points.
Then passes were about the same unchanged. Then we saw a higher proportion of detractors, this time, who would give lower ratings, and so the NPS score that we arrived at was about less than half of what we saw, a drop of about 24 points since 2017.
That could be a signal for whatever reasons, but that’s something that we saw come out as a contextual background item. Another one was just that half of the respondents have considered leaving the military. That really struck me.
I come at this not having a military background, having some family and friends who have been in the military, but I thought that might be in the like, yeah, just guessing. And to some degree that maybe in the 20s or 30s, but to say half in the last year considered leaving, really striking to me.
Drew Catt: Yeah, I was flummoxed by that because on one hand, it’s OK, half of them are thought about, you know, not just leaving their job. Because it’s not just a job; there’s an entire lifestyle and life that is built around military service.
By even building on what Lindsey was saying earlier with the number of amenities available on the base, etc. versus the community and the culture. But I thought about that in the larger context and thought about myself, and some of my co-workers here and some of my friends and family members.
I don’t know if I know a single person that has not, at least, had a moment of frustration and their occupation where over at least just even for a half second, they’ve thought about leaving their job.
I don’t know, maybe those numbers are low compared to folks thinking about leaving their job. But then again, military services, much more than just a job. That was interesting thinking about those.
Paul DiPerna: And not to get too wonky about the questionnaire, but maybe next time we do this, we could even do an experiment, to see, give half of the respondents if they’ve thought about leaving in the last week or the last few days.
Then also look at last year, and if there’s, that might be revealing in some way. But no, I think that’s a really good point.
Drew Catt: Yeah, we could spend a lot of time going down this path of hypothesizing what it’s like for military members. I don’t know. Paul, do you have one more thing?
Paul DiPerna: Yeah, there was just one other thing that’s interesting to me and somewhat surprising to is just—and maybe segue into getting into the more education-oriented questions that we asked. But is interesting, and somewhat surprising to me just how many different types of schooling military parents have tried for their students and have enrolled their students.
We see, roughly, we asked about six different types of schools ranging from your public district school and public charter school, to homeschooling private school, the DOD schools, and even online schooling.
We see that at least three of 10 respondents said that they had enrolled their child for at least a year in any one of those school types. Acceptably, we see 72 percent saying that they’ve enrolled their child in a public district school.
But we see 37 percent said private school. Then like I said, three out of 10 tried the other types of schooling. There seems to be this appetite, and a desire and an openness for a whole range of options of different kinds of schooling.
Drew Catt: Yeah, and I think that resonates with what I know anecdotally from one of my friends whose … She is an active-duty military spouse, and between her husband going to different trainings and everything, and them having to live in all the different locations, that it’s been whatever schooling environment works best, depending on where they are living, and at what point in the school year it is. It’s really interesting to see those results really flushed out in the charts.
Let’s reel it back and focus on education because we’re EdChoice and that’s what we do. The findings in the report that interested me the most are the ones focusing on the current school parents.
For those of you who’ve been following some of the recent research we’ve been putting out, I had a nice cross sector parents survey and with a co-author, and something I’m really interested in is finding out why parents choose the schools that they do.
There’s something that I’ve seen repeatedly in parent surveys that I’ve worked on that came out in this survey results. That’s that academics aren’t always the top factor influencing schooling decisions; this may be a surprise to some of our listeners, but I don’t think that’s really surprised any of us here in the office. In fact, nearly one in five current school parents and active duty households are 19 percent, to be specific, said safe environment was the top factor.
That was compared to 14 percent, who said academic reputation and 11 percent, who said location being close to home or work for the school, being the top factor influencing their decision. Now, as researchers, we all try to remain unbiased going into the analysis and letting the data speak for itself.
But were there any findings that you were expecting to see before the survey was even fielded?
Lindsey Burke: Yeah, I mean, that’s the main one, honestly, in my opinion, it is so consistent with what we have seen, just across the board, when you survey parents. Whether it’s a parent in Florida or California or D.C., wherever it might be.
That their number one issue, particularly when you look at parents who live in urban areas, is school safety. I mean, that comes back again, and again, in the survey data that we see, and then it starts to diverge a little bit from there.
I mean, we often see values and character, instruction, and moral development it’s coming in pretty high there. Pretty interesting to see that slight diversion. Then in the military survey, that it was academic reputation that rose up next on the list for those families.
But it’s consistent largely with surveys that we see where, you know, families aren’t really worried about how their kids school is scoring on a given government tests. They’re much more worried about the child safety, the overall academic environment, and as with the case in our survey of military families, the location of the school, which isn’t unusual, either. That was, I think, overall, pretty standard. But the school safety one, for sure, is something we see over and over again.
Drew Catt: It’s also interesting, put it in to the psychological context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Lindsey Burke: That’s correct.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that you need to feel physically safe in order to move your way up the pyramid.
Lindsey Burke: Yeah. It is interesting, the Maslow’s point because this is something that has come out in the literature as well. That after our family—this is Pat Wolf’s work in D.C.—but after a family switches into a private school choice environment, and they are thinking primarily school safety.
I need to make sure my child safe, that they’re not going to get bullied or worse when they’re in school. Then after about two years, when they ease into their new private school environment and are confident that their child’s in a safe school environment, then they start to shift their thinking more toward academic outcome than safety. You’re absolutely right, it’s definitely a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when it comes to education, which I think it’s pretty intuitive, but interesting to see in the survey research.
Paul DiPerna: Yes, for me, this really was fascinating to me, because I think I expected safety to be up there. I did not expect it to be at the top. I thought of it yeah, maybe being the top three or five or so.
Because I’m thinking about maybe the locations and maybe they’re not all in these urban settings where we have seen safety as a number one reason.
Where military families are located, just my limited understanding, it’s pretty wide ranging, where sometimes it’s very much in small town, somewhat rural areas, or in the suburban areas.
But the safety that was really intriguing. And in some ways, I wish we maybe even had a follow up to that to dive a little bit deeper, but I think that informs some future survey research that either we do or others can do.
Then also just contrasting, because we ask these questions in our national and state surveys, as well, but it’s interesting, when you do look at demographics, there are just different pensions and preferences for different types of groups.
In our national polling, we often see individual one-on-one attention and class size rising to the top for certain types of preferences. That’s in the middle in terms of the, for lack of a better word, hierarchy of the different reasons influencing school decisions in this particular military survey.
Test scores wasn’t too surprising. Usually, that is in the middle or towards the bottom for this question. But I agree with you, Lindsey. This was really an interesting set of results that we saw.
Thinking more about what we were expecting, and to some consistency from 2017, the survey we did a couple years ago, that the choice related items, I didn’t really see it, to be honest. I mean, I see consistency, and where we see seven out of 10 military households, that they were supportive of education savings accounts.
This is roughly almost identical to what we found in our last survey of active duty service members. There’s also a lot of support for public charter schools and school vouchers. We’re on the order of roughly three to one positive to negative responses and sentiment to those types of policies.
I wouldn’t put that in a category for me, at least unlike surprising at all, but it’s consistent. And something that I think that should be informative, hopefully, to policymakers and those who are advocating for school choice reforms and support of military families.
Drew Catt: Yeah, and another thing along those lines, that didn’t necessarily surprise me, and it was something that I was hoping to see but not necessarily expecting to see, is the preference of active duty households towards universal programs—specifically universally ESAs, rather than those programs that are limited to just families of children with certain special needs or certain income limits. That was nice and it was in sync with some of the previous research and polling and surveys that we’ve seen, at least here within EdChoice and some externally as well.
That’s always nice to see the preference towards going bigger, and the preference towards universal and capturing everyone and allowing everyone access.
Paul DiPerna: The only thing I would also note that we always ask these baseline questions without giving any description or definition to these policies and reforms. And following that up with a … What we give is a description and we feel as balanced definition of a policy.
It’s consistent, but it’s still really, I think, interesting to see just how much … I mean, there’s a two to one positive the negative ratio on the baseline questions for ESAs, for school vouchers, and charter schools.
Then you see a jump when we give the description on the order of roughly 15 to 20 points increase in support for education savings accounts in particular. But also you see that kind of jump for school vouchers, and also for charter schools to a little bit lesser degree.
Even just big margins of support versus opposition for those types of policies.
Drew Catt: Yeah, so it’s always interesting, seeing the questions at the beginning as we’re crafting and tweaking before it goes to the polling partner to actually do all the fieldwork. Then having the respondents fill out the survey in March and April.
Then digging into the cross tab, seeing the significant differences and everything. It was interesting how we were able to use some of the same questions that we used in our 2018 national survey, or 2018 Schooling in America.
Especially, to me, what jumped out was, how many of the active-duty households went above and beyond to support their child’s K–12 experience and the accommodations they made. That almost every single line item, they reported higher responses than the national population. What either of you all’s thoughts on that?
Lindsey Burke: Yeah, I mean, that is, again, a finding that was consistent from our prior survey of military families that we conduct it that they are, I would say, making sacrifices above and beyond the types of sacrifices that we see when it comes to education of their children of the civilian population.
I mean, everybody sacrifices for their children, of course, but to see the extent to which it was slightly higher for military families, when it comes to things like switching jobs, or not taking a job. I mean, it’s a really interesting finding, when you put it in the broader context of what military families are already experiencing day to day.
The frequent moves the parent who might be deployed. I mean, it really drives home the extent to which military families live a unique life, day to day. I think, to me it was interesting, but again, it was pretty consistent with our first survey.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I agree. Yeah, we do see that consistency. You can look at these numbers in different ways. I mean, the levels in and of themselves are really interesting, where you see a third of active duty military parents saying that they taken out a loan to support their child’s K –12 education.
Then you look at the gap. It’s one way you look at, one out of three said they’ve taken out new loan, but then that’s 13 points higher than the national average of parents of school children that we’ve seen in our surveys.
They’re also another one is paying for tutoring, where they’re twice as likely than the national average to say they’ve been paying for tutoring. That’s one item that really stands out to me, and then connects to policy and potential for education savings accounts.
Because that is one aspect of ESAs, that those funds can be used for things other than tuition and tutoring to me stands out as a big one, at least having potential. And another one is before- and after-care services. Which, particularly for parents with younger kids, is really an important consideration and something.
That’s another one where we see a pretty big gap between those active duty military parents, 60 percent saying that they pay for before after care services and compare that to 42 percent. And the national average of parents to school-age children.
I think that there are these implications that pop out of some of these questions that do have a way of coming back to potential policy changes and policy ideas.
Lindsey Burke: Yeah, and I think to, it circles back to the high level of support, our respondent demonstrated for the whole concept of ESA. I mean, if these are families who are, I mean, 13 percentage points is non-trivial.
I mean, that’s a big difference in the number of families who are taking out loans to pay for their children’s school or families who are hiring private tutors, whatever it might be. I think that that starts to explain in a way the high level of support we see in the survey for ESAs.
I mean, they clearly are doing everything that they can currently to get the type of flexibility that military life requires when it comes to their children’s education. So I bet for these families, a lot of it’s just intuitive.
Drew Catt: Well, before we wrap up, is there anything that we haven’t covered that either you think our listeners should know, about 2019 Surveying the Military?
Lindsey Burke: Well, I would say, just from a policy perspective, we seen the concepts of ESA, for military families gain a lot of momentum over the past two years. I hope that this really provides some good data, some tools for policymakers who are thinking about what they can do to really meet the needs of servicemembers who are sacrificing so much for the U.S.
This is something that to me it’s low-hanging fruit, I mean provide military families with choice. I mean, that should be a no brainer, I think.
Hopefully, this will provide some extra tools to policymakers who can look at this and say, “Yeah, not only is it good policy, but its policy that seven in 10 military families agree with and would want and benefit from.”
I think that’s really important. Like I said, we’re seeing momentum on ESAs for military families move forward. There are several congressional proposals at the federal level to do that.
I mean, I think at the states as well, folks really starting to think about how school choice can bolster the lifestyle that military families experience and how it can really improve overall for them. We’re looking forward to seeing more momentum moving forward on that front.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I can’t add anything to that especially in considerations of policy. I think that’s all spot on. I think there is the potential for some momentum moving forward, because the more that the survey results are out there, and other folks are doing surveys, just really showing how…
I mean, I truly believe that military families are population where education savings accounts are almost tailor made for that flexibility. That can really be hopefully beneficial and to maybe even alleviate some of their stressors that we also looked at in the survey because they do so much for our country.
One other thing I would just say is that this is a large quantitative study of 1,295 correspondence, and roughly about half of those folks were current school parents.
But I mean, I would just like to make the pitch to our listeners, that if you have been in the military, or have loved ones, friends, or colleagues who have served in the military are serving in the military, have young kids who are in their schooling years, in elementary and secondary education, we’d love to hear their stories, and to be able to learn more, I mean, that’s just really informative and helpful to our better understanding of the lifestyle and the challenges, and everything that military families are going through to make these kinds of sacrifices, not just for their family, but for the country as well.
It’d be great to hear from you, whether it’s over email or to call us or on social media to engage with us. But please, we’d love to hear from you and to see how the survey results, how they match or contrast with what your experiences have been.
Drew Catt: All right. Well, I think hopefully, we’ve given everyone some good food for thought as they prepare for their 4th of July festivities coming up. Hopefully, in their minds will be continuing themes of freedom, choice and sacrifice. Thank you so much for joining me, Paul and Lindsey, and thanks for the opportunity to work on this report with you.
Lindsey Burke: Thank you, Drew.
Paul DiPerna: Yeah, thanks, Drew. It’s been a lot of fun.
Drew Catt: Yeah, so hat tip to our listeners for taking the time to learn a little bit more about this new study. To stay updated on the latest school choice research, legislative news and more, please remember to subscribe to our EdChoice Chats podcast on platforms like SoundCloud, Apple podcasts and others for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. If social media is more your thing, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can find us @edchoice. Thanks again for listening. Until next time, take care.