Ep. 187: Pennsylvania K–12 & School Choice Survey

June 5, 2020

The authors of the brief, Pennsylvania K-12 School Choice Survey, discuss the findings—including voters’ views on school choice program types and more.

Drew Catt: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. And I’m here to talk about some of our newest research, a brief titled, Pennsylvania K-12 School Choice Survey, which was a voter poll brief that we conducted. And I worked on the brief with some folks at Commonwealth Foundation, and I’m pleased to be interviewing my co-author, Colleen Hroncich, who is a senior policy analyst at Commonwealth. So Colleen, welcome to the podcast.

Colleen Hroncich: Thanks Drew. I’m happy to be able to talk to you about this today. A very exciting report. We’re excited to share it with everyone.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So before we dive into the survey results, Colleen, perhaps you could provide some local context. Let’s start with what sort of school choice option families in Pennsylvania already have.

Colleen Hroncich: There’s not a lot of options here in Pennsylvania. Our biggest total school choice option would be, in terms of private school choice is the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which is EITC is how we call it. And that was actually the first business tax-credit scholarship program in the whole country. We beat Florida by a couple of months, and that one’s, there is an income limit on it, but other than that, it’s open to any family in the state and businesses give donations to scholarship organizations and then families apply for scholarships to various private schools.

And then there’s a companion to that, which is the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program. And that’s very similar in nature. The difference is it’s geared towards kids who are residentially assigned to the lowest 15 percent of schools based on state tests. So those are our two private school choice options. And then we also have charter schools which are authorized at the district level and then cyber charter schools that are authorized by the state.

Drew Catt: Wow. So that sounds like there are quite a few options that already exist. I’m glad that we were able to get a total of 1,270 online interviews and 137 live phone interviews. So for context, the survey did take place from mid-February to mid-March, so really before most states in the United States had really started lockdowns, just to give the context behind maybe what people were saying and how they were living at that point in time. But let’s start off with some of the results around ESAs.

So Colleen, correct me if I’m wrong, but ESAs or at least a bill for an ESA program has been introduced for quite a few years now and has also had a little bit of attention in the media over the past several years, is that correct?

Colleen Hroncich: Yes. We’ve had a few different ESA options in Pennsylvania, not inactive, but bills introduced. Some have been for students with special needs, some have been for military families, and some have been for kids who are in the worst performing schools in the state.

Drew Catt: And even with that happening, 42 percent of the Pennsylvanians that responded to our survey said they’d had never heard of ESAs. However, after we gave them a basic description of a general ESA program, we saw that support was at 73 percent. So about three out of four voters in the state of Pennsylvania favored ESAs once they were given a definition.

Colleen Hroncich: I suspect that would be even higher now because like you said, that was before all the shutdowns. And now that parents are actually living the life of having their kids at home and learning at home, it’s pretty likely that even more people would choose to have some of that funding directed to them at their homes rather than being lost in the district.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I think that maybe even lines up with what we saw, the most important reasons that voters said they supported ESAs with about a third saying access to a better academic environment, then about a quarter each saying more freedom and flexibility for parents and focus on more individual attention. So I really wonder what those percents would be if we went back and asked the same questions to the same people today as if that first survey hadn’t happened.

Colleen Hroncich: Yes, it’s definitely a different world than the one they were answering in.

Drew Catt: I was glad to see a trend that we’ve seen in a national poll for several years. And that is that folks are more likely to favor universal programs than programs that are really limited to families based on their income level or their students with special needs. So we saw that 70 percent of voters agreed for a universal ESA approach, whereas it was almost a 50-50 split with agree, disagree for an ESA limited based on income or special needs status.

Colleen Hroncich: And that’s a really exciting finding because it shows that people just innately understand that regardless of income, regardless of where you live, parents should be able to choose the school that’s right for their child or the educational setting in general that’s right for their child. So we were really happy to see that finding. It’s nice to know that our fellow Pennsylvanians agree with us on that.

Drew Catt: And even being realistic that sometimes legislators do introduce more targeted and specific programs, we also asked a follow up question to gauge views on an ESA for children of active-duty military members and those children of soldiers who were killed in action. And when we gave a definition of that type of ESA program, we saw that about 85 percent of Pennsylvania voters across the board either strongly or somewhat favored that type of ESA program with school parents edging out the overall respondents.

Colleen Hroncich: And that doesn’t surprise me at all because Pennsylvania tends to be a very patriotic state. So I’m not surprised that residents would want to make sure that things are smooth as possible for our military members. And interestingly, the military ESA bill that has been introduced in Pennsylvania is by a representative who is himself a veteran. So he knows what the life is like of military families and how they’re moving. And the kids are changing schools all the time. And if they can have the flexibility of an ESA, it just makes that one less hardship that the family has to bear.

Drew Catt: And one of my close friends is a military mom. And just following the journey of choosing different schools and getting into the school on one base but not another base when they move and home-schooling for half a semester here and there mid move, it sounds like, yeah, an ESA would be a great opportunity for those families. So let’s talk about the two programs that Pennsylvania does have right now. So the first one and the older one, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program. So Colleen, if I am remembering right, the program just celebrated its 20th birthday.

Colleen Hroncich: It was the 19th. And unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to have the celebration that we would normally have, a little rally in Harrisburg because of all the coronavirus shutdowns and everything. But it is definitely something that’s helped thousands of families over the years. And it’s been great for them. My own family used it when my kids were young, we were in a small private school and we were able to do that through the EITC program, but unfortunately, there’s caps on it. And because of that, it’s actually thousands of kids denied every year also.

Drew Catt: Well, we’ll get into that last part. Please start off with, OK, so the EITC has been around for 19 years and yet more than half of Pennsylvanians, just over half, 51 percent, said they had never heard of tax-credit scholarships on the baseline question where we didn’t really give them a definition of what a tax-credit scholarship is. Did that surprise you?

Colleen Hroncich: Yes. I was not surprised by the low ESA recognition, but I was surprised because this has been a part of the landscape for so long. I was surprised at how many people did not know about it. But I mean, I myself didn’t know about it when we first went to the school we went to, but the school itself told us. So maybe that’s what it is—people don’t find out about it until they actually try to go to a school and realize that there is help available for them.

Drew Catt: That’s really interesting. It could also be thrown by one of the highest proportions saying that they’d never heard of tax-credit scholarships were those in generation Z, which is the youngest generation, so it’s possible that they also didn’t have kids yet. And even if they had received a scholarship themselves, they probably only knew it as the EITC or the OSTC, which is at least in the research world, how I refer to the program. How are they referred to within the state themselves?

Colleen Hroncich: I think it varies a lot. Sometimes it’s by the acronym. Sometimes it’s just tax-credit scholarships, but I would think for most families, it’s probably just scholarships. They’re not even thinking about where the money came from or what mechanism there was. They just know they got a scholarship. Especially for kids, maybe the parents would know, but a lot of times the kids wouldn’t.

Drew Catt: That’s really interesting. So let’s get into that follow-up where we gave respondents the definition of the EITC program with a lot of the language pulled directly from the statutory language. And we see that on that baseline, a little over a third or 34 percent favored tax-credit scholarships at general. But when we actually gave them the definition of the EITC or the educational improvement tax credit, that 71 percent said that they favored the program. So that’s a big jump. And that was really heartening to see that between two-thirds and three-fourths of Pennsylvania voters are in favor of the program.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. And I wonder if that’s just because sometimes tax credits are a boogeyman for policies and they’re easy to go against. And so until people understand that this is the type that’s benefiting individuals, especially low- and middle-income families, it’s not something that’s benefiting some big, bad corporation. So maybe that’s why at first they were pretty skeptical, but then once they understand it better, they’re supportive.

Drew Catt: Along those lines, I actually expected there to be a little more support for Pennsylvania’s other tax-credit scholarship program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, which is specifically for students living in a low-achieving school zone in addition to the income limitations that exist. But we saw that it was the exact same percentage, 71 percent. So between two-thirds and three-fourths saying that they supported the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program. So it seems that of those that are in favor of tax-credit scholarship programs, once they get the definitions, the responses don’t really change from one program to the next.

Colleen Hroncich: I was a little bit surprised by that, too. And if I recall correctly, I’m not looking at the numbers right now. I think even among the different demographic groups, it stayed pretty constant.

Drew Catt: Yes. There was a little variability here and there, but nothing really outside of the margin of error. So let’s get to that tax-credit scholarship cap that you were mentioning earlier. So what is the cap that currently exists?

Colleen Hroncich: There’s a couple different pieces to the tax-credit scholarship programs. The EITC has the kindergarten through 12th grade tax-credit scholarship part that we’ve been talking about, but then there’s also a pre-K scholarship component and a component that is for what they call educational improvement organizations. So taken together those three programs, the cap is currently $135 million. And the OSTC program also has a cap. And that cap is $55 million. Now five million of that is separated into a very specific program that’s a little bit complicated, probably not worth trying to explain on the podcast, but it is broken down a little bit differently than the rest of it.

So altogether, it’s $190 million—$140 million of that is for tax-credit scholarships, and $50 million is for those other programs that I talked about.

Drew Catt: When you really even drill it down further and looking at the average scholarship amounts, at the end of the day, that really does limit the number of students that can receive scholarships just based on those caps.

Colleen Hroncich: The average scholarships are very small. For EITC, it’s $1,800. And for OSTC, it’s about $2,400. So when you think that some 50,000 scholarships are awarded and that’s how low the amounts are, you realize that it doesn’t take a lot of help per child to get kids to have these different options. And that seems to be all the more compelling of a reason that we would want to give that option to as many kids as possible.

Drew Catt: Especially in today’s current economic outlook when we see that there are possibly going to be states that are having budgetary concerns. And I have been wondering how long it will take until some of those budgetary squeezes end up at the district level. So hypothetically, these programs could potentially be a release valve for a lot of districts.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. For some reason, people like to point to it and say, “We shouldn’t have this because that’s a cost to the state or that’s a cost to the taxpayers.” But really compared to what we spend in district school, it’s enormous savings to the district, the taxpayers. So it’s all the more reason to embrace these programs right now while there are potential budget issues.

Drew Catt: And I think even before the current economic environment when things were still fairly high back in late February, we did see that overwhelmingly, the majority of voters in Pennsylvania were in favor of increasing the cap on tax-credit scholarships with more than two out of three saying that they would favor increasing the cap.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. And that was encouraging because typically the last five years, each year, about 50,000 applications between the two programs have been denied because of lack of funds. So you’ve got a lot of kids who are trying to get these scholarships and they’re being denied because of the caps. At the same time, businesses are getting turned away. So you’ve got a lot of businesses who want to donate, but the caps are stopping them as well. So there’s a mismatch on both the supply and the demand.

The willing suppliers of the scholarship money, they’re there, the willing recipients of the scholarship money, they’re there. The only thing preventing it all from working out beautifully is the arbitrary caps that the government has put on the program.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And it’s striking that more than three out of five voters, regardless of where they live, are in favor with really the city of Philadelphia being the most favorable comparatively of increasing the cap and the lowest being Allegheny County, which again still has a little over 60 percent saying that they would favor the increase.

Colleen Hroncich: Well, the Philadelphia numbers definitely did not surprise me because those are the families that are in the schools that the kids need to escape from the most, whether it’s safety issues or just they’re the lowest performing schools and there’s a lot of families that want other options. So there’s a scholarship organization in Philadelphia that regularly turns away about 8,000 applications, just that one organization because just so many people are applying for it and they don’t have enough funds to do it for everybody.

Drew Catt: Wow. Well, let’s turn to some of those other options or at least one of those other options. We also asked Pennsylvanians what they thought of public charter schools. And before given a definition, the majority were in favor of charter schools with 56 percent saying that they were favorable. Then when that definition of a charter school was given, really there’s only a 10 percent shift with just under two thirds saying that they favored charter schools. So Colleen, why do you think that, hypothetically, why would families potentially be less favorable of charter schools compared to tax-credit scholarships or ESAs on the state?

Colleen Hroncich: I’m not sure the reason other than maybe they just prefer the option to be outside of the public system maybe. I don’t know, but the fact that there’s a smaller jump doesn’t surprise me just because there are charter schools all over the state and then the cyber schools are statewide. So I’m not surprised that people already have an opinion of it and they already are familiar with them. I will say that the charter schools are demonized all the time by opponents of school choice. So that could be part of the reason why they don’t break through the same way that the tax-credit scholarships and the ESAs do. And especially the cyber charter schools are particularly vilified, which as we’re sitting here with everybody learning remotely, it’s a little bit questionable if that was the best strategy for the school districts.

Maybe it would have been better for them to partner more with the cybers and then they all would have been in better shape to move forward. If we didn’t have cyber schools, I can’t imagine what education would look like right now because that was such an innovative model that was developed. And they’ve led the way really in terms of being able to educate your kids at home.

Drew Catt: The times of learning by attending class VHS tape, like I did for my fourth and fifth grade years being schooled at home. We’ve come a long way technologically.

Colleen Hroncich: I am a home-school mom myself and I give major credit to the parents that did it before the internet. I don’t know how they did it.

Drew Catt: And we did a lot of experiential field trips, so going to a lot of museums and a lot of historical landmarks and learning a lot about the world around me. It was a great experience. Don’t get me wrong.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. And that sort of stuff sticks with you better sometimes than what you sit in a lecture and learn.

Drew Catt: So when we did ask the parents who had their children in home school, at some point a private school, their public district school or public charter school how satisfied they were with their schools, thankfully more than half—regardless of school type—said that they were satisfied. And I’m wondering if the low satisfaction level being the public charter school, I wonder how much that bled into favorability of charter schools. It’s interesting to sit here and think about even though knowing that a lot of the respondents to the poll were also not parents. So that could also potentially be a factor.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. I don’t know what would drive that sort of dissatisfaction level because you’ve chosen it, so it seems like you would leave it if you weren’t happy with it.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And especially when you compare that to the more than four out of five parents that said they were, somewhat are, very satisfied with the home-school experience or the private school experience. The differences is a little striking. So Colleen, you were talking about the comparative cost of the tax-credit scholarships compared to what is actually spent in public schools. And that’s really interesting because Pennsylvanians were actually more aware of what was being spent in private schools than what’s being spent in public schools with only 74 percent of voters underestimating how much you spend in private schools, which the best number that we could find was $11,409 per student for the current school year.

And the median respondent actually estimated $7,000. So about half said more than $7,000, half said less than $7,000. And that is striking when we compare that to the actual amount that is being spent in public schools with the most recent data point being $17,582. We saw that 92 percent of voters underestimated that amount with the middle voter saying $5,000. So that means over a half of voters are estimating less than a third of what is actually being spent. And that was astounding.

Colleen Hroncich: The magnitude of the error shocked me, the fact that nobody had a clue didn’t because they’re constantly told schools are underfunded, schools are underfunded. If you think private schools are $7,000 each, then it makes sense that you’re going to guess way less than that for public schools that you’re told are underfunded. So the magnitude was shocking, but the fact that there was so much misunderstanding wasn’t particularly surprising.

Drew Catt: Information can be powerful, though. So we did what in polling world is called “split-sample voting experiments,” where we basically split the number of voters in half. And we asked half of them one version of a question and the other half a different version of the question. So when we asked the question, “Do you believe that public school funding in Pennsylvania is at a level that is too high, too low, or about right,” vs., “According to the most recent information available, on average, it’s about $17,582. And then based on that, do you believe it’s too high, too low, or about right?”

And without being given a number, 52 percent said it was too low. And the half of the sample that was given the information, only a quarter said that it was too low and actually two out of five voters said that that amount was too high. Yes. It definitely shows that this information does need to get out there because a lot of people are misinformed about what is being spent per student in their public schools.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. And then here in Pennsylvania, we’re told not only is it underfunded as just a general amount, but we were told that we’re terrible according, across the country we’re really bad, but in reality, we’re about ninth in funding overall. Ninth highest per pupil funding overall. So it’s a large dollar amount, but to put it in context, it’s the ninth highest dollar amount in the whole country per student. So schools are not underfunded. They may be spending money poorly, but they’re not underfunded.

Drew Catt: And the funding doesn’t always flow to where parents want to go. So we also asked about an ideal scenario, “If it were your decision and you could select any type of school, what type of school would you select in order to obtain the best education for your child?” And we saw with that general question, an almost even split with 41 percent the same private school and 40 percent, same public district school. But this was another question where we split the sample and asked two different versions. So the other version we asked, we inserted the phrase, and financial costs in transportation were of no concern. And we saw a 5 percent bump for the percent saying private school with 46 percent more than that 41.

And to just put this all in context, 79 percent of students in Pennsylvania like in most states attend public district school, a little more than one out of 10 with 12 percent that attend private school. So yeah, Colleen, what do you make of that disconnect between what parents want and what they’re getting?

Colleen Hroncich: That was the most shocking I think finding to me is to have 41 percent would choose a district given other choices and yet 79 percent of kids are in the district schools. That shows that if politicians would look at all these results and see the tax credit scholarships, ESAs are enormously popular across the board whatever demographic you look at, whatever region you look at. And there’s a big disconnect between people’s schooling preferences and where they actually are. It’s hard to see the downside to embracing school choice options.

And one of the findings that really, really struck us was the city of Philadelphia, “Specifically, what school would you choose?” Only 12 percent of respondents said they would choose their local district school.

Drew Catt: That is hard to take. And it makes me wonder, we did ask current school parents to grade their local schools and across the state, looking at that state average, really the lowest marks were given to the public district schools. But I wonder, I don’t have the cross tabs right in front of me, but I wonder what the percent would be in Philadelphia giving low grades to their public district schools.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. I don’t have that right here either, but I suspect it wouldn’t be good.

Drew Catt: Colleen, as a home-schooling family, I don’t know. What did you think about the contrast between 3 percent that actually home-school their children in the state versus the seven to 8 percent that said they would if really they could select for the best education for their child.

Colleen Hroncich: Those families must be prepared for a very messy house because that’s what I find with homeschooling. But it was very encouraging to see that a lot of parents would choose to have their kids home with them when they could. And once again, I’m going to call out Philadelphia, 18 percent of parents in Philadelphia said that they would home-school if they could. And that’s amazing. And I think that speaks to how motivated parents are to find the option that’s best for their kids. And a lot of times that is the individualization that is available through homeschooling.

Drew Catt: And I honestly, again wonder what those percentages would be if we asked them today in our national poll, our annual schooling in America project, we’re going to try to tease that out to see what difference COVID-19 is making on preferences towards homeschooling.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. Does having your kids home all day make you want that more or want that less?

Drew Catt: I’m just sitting here, my wife’s a teacher and I’m counting down the days really until the end of next week when there will only be, or actually one and a half weeks after she does some PD, professional development, but really having one parent working full-time while the other parent not working as hard full-time, just more or less prepping for the next school year, which don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of work that goes into that. But yeah, I can’t imagine having to work full-time and be in charge of schooling for my child. So my hat definitely goes off to you, Colleen.

Colleen Hroncich: Well, my kids were older when I started working, so I definitely could not have done it with young kids.

Drew Catt: And it really just makes me that much more appreciative of all the parents out there that are doing the best that they can to get through this with their kids. And definitely I’m thankful to the Pennsylvanians that took the time to really answer the survey and to give us this wonderful data.

Colleen Hroncich: Right. And in light of the COVID stuff, and we don’t know what’s happening with schools next year, and seeing how popular ESAs are, it’s such a perfect time for these policies. So it’s great that we can share this data with lawmakers here in Pennsylvania, with opinion leaders and let them know that even before all this, parents wanted options and people supported choices for parents. So to take, rather than putting all the funding in the district schools when we don’t know what’s going to be happening with them, take a portion of that funding, let it follow the children wherever the children need to be during this traumatic time. It’s a win-win, win-win.

Drew Catt: So Colleen, any closing thoughts from your end? And where on social media can our listeners see the posts around this poll that Commonwealth will be making?

Colleen Hroncich: So Commonwealth’s Twitter is @Liberty4pa. And mine is @ColleenHroncich. We’re definitely sharing it on social media, Facebook. If you just search Commonwealth Foundation on Facebook, you will get there. I don’t really do Facebook. I think that EdChoice has been tweeting about it some as well. So @edchoice, and it’s very exciting to be able to share such good news throughout the state, especially at this time when we needed some good news.

Drew Catt: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to work with me on this project, Colleen, and yeah, thanks for joining me on the podcast today.

Colleen Hroncich: Well, thank you, Drew. And this was a ton of work that you did and EdChoice for sponsoring it and putting it all together for us. It’s very exciting for us to be able to see this and we really appreciate it.

Drew Catt: I’m looking forward to seeing how the families in Pennsylvania really receive the results and yeah, hoping that really everything goes down the best way possible in the months forward for not just those in your state, but in every state. And the thoughts are really with all of you listening and I highly recommend you all go read the post that’s up on our blog titled, “Supporting Kids’ Mental Emotional Health While Schools Are Closed.” A lot of the tips in there I’m sure will also be relevant this summer.

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