Schooling in America Series: The Public on School Choice

After a 2017 where school choice seemed to garner more headlines than ever thanks to federal proponents and policy proposals, this election year seemed subdued by comparison. K–12 education certainly made headlines, but school choice did not seem to carry over the same level of attention on the national stage. Despite this, public support for policies like education savings accounts (ESAs) and tax-credit scholarships remained at high levels.

School choice did play its way into some noteworthy education stories in 2018. A voucher program was enacted as part of sweeping education reform in Puerto Rico following disastrous hurricanes in 2017. And Florida launched the first school choice program specifically for victims of bullying.

In this series, we’re going through bits and pieces of our 2018 Schooling in America Survey, addressing a topic at a time and contextualizing our results with other surveys as well as current events. Today’s topic: what the public thinks about school choice.

What Does the Public Think About Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)?

When provided with a definition of ESAs—the newest, most flexible type of school choice program—Americans were four times as likely to support (74%) than oppose (18%) them. This support level is the highest in the six years we have polled about ESAs, and opposition is also its lowest level.

The majority of Americans who support ESAs do so for myriad reasons, but two in particular stood out this year.

About three in 10 Americans(28%) said they favor ESAs because they provide access to schools with better academics—which is certainly logical but also interesting in light of other school choice programs, such as tax-credit scholarships and vouchers that do the same but don’t allow families the same customization power as ESAS. The same proportion (28%) favored ESAs because they provide more freedom and flexibility for parents, which seems more aligned with their program design.

Perhaps because they are still relatively new, most annual education surveys do not ask about ESAs.

A 2018 LIU Education Policy poll had an interesting school choice comparative question that included ESAs, though. It asked respondents what type of school choice program they thought would be most effective, with answer choices including vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, charter schools, magnet schools, inter-intra-district choice, tax credits and deductions for educational expenses as well as ESAs. Of all those types of choice, 11 percent thought ESAs were most effective. ESAs ranked second-to-last among choice types, although the bottom five options were within 3 percentage points of each other.

What Does the Public Think About Vouchers?

The percent of support for vouchers has fallen in a range between the mid-50s and low-60s the past six years, with nearly two thirds of Americans (64%) saying they support school vouchers when provided with a description. Without providing a definition of vouchers, less than half (44%) supported vouchers and more than a fifth (22%) opposed them.

That 20-point increase in support when provided with a definition of vouchers may indicate the public’s disconnect between the word and the concept of vouchers. It may also mean there’s a lot of work to be done in communicating what exactly vouchers are and what they do.

For example, Education Next, in its 2018 poll, saw a majority of the public (54%) supporting school choice when using language akin to a universal voucher program. But when it actually used the label “voucher,” that level of support dropped to 44 percent. Interestingly, the same type of experiment did not yield as drastic results for vouchers targeted at low-income students—43 percent supported means-tested vouchers, and 45 percent supported such a program when using the “voucher” label.

Millennials were strongly supportive of vouchers for low-income students in the 2018 GenForward survey on Millennials and Public Education in the United States. Majorities of Millennial African Americans (87%), Latinos (84%), Asian Americans (71%) and Whites (53%) supported such means-testing, compared to weaker majorities for universal vouchers for African Americans, Latinos, and Whites.

What Does the Public Think About Tax-Credit Scholarships?

Two out of three (66%) Americans expressed support for tax-credit scholarships when provided with a definition. Like ESAs, 2018 marked the highest level of support in six years of Schooling in America surveys for tax-credit scholarships. About a quarter (24%) opposed tax-credit scholarships when provided with a definition.

In the Education Next Poll, a majority (57%) supported tax-credit scholarship programs for low-income families. Like in our results, about a fourth (26%) opposed such programs, although it is purely speculative if that amount would be higher or lower had the poll asked a comparative universal-eligibility tax credit question.

What Does the Public Think About Charter Schools?

Support for charter schools has stayed relatively flat in our survey over the years. About six in 10 (61%) said they support charter schools when provided with a definition, which is the same percentage as 2017 and 2014. Opposition levels have also remained unchanged since 2017 at 29 percent.

Education Next conducted a similar wording experiment for its charter school questions as its voucher questions. When not given the “charter” label, just 38 percent of respondents said they support a system akin to charter schools. When provided with a “public charter school” label, though, that support increased to 43 percent.

The GenForward Survey detected strong support for Millennials for charter schools, although not quite at the same high level as for means-tested vouchers. Roughly two-thirds (67%) of African American Millennials, more than half of Asian Americans (54%) and about six in 10 Latinos (62%) and whites (58%) support charter schools.

Some view charter schools and other types of school choice as the ultimate form of education accountability because schools need to meet families’ needs in order to retain students. But what does the public think of our “mainstream” education accountability systems, such as A–F school grades and the power dynamics underneath them? Find out next time on the Schooling in America Series.  

Other Posts in the Schooling in America Series

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know Our Teachers

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know School Parents

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know the Public on Public Education

Schooling in America Series: K-12 Education Funding