Ep. 199: Monthly Tracker Results – July 2020

August 11, 2020

In this episode, we share key takeaways from last month’s EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker polling waves, including increased favorability of homeschooling and more.

Mike McShane: Hello. And welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. I’m joined today by Paul DiPerna, vice president of research here at EdChoice, and Drew Catt, director of state research and special projects. We are here for another installment of a conversation about our EdChoice tracker survey. For those of you that haven’t joined us in the past, every month, we pull a nationally representative sample of folks in partnership with the polling firm Morning Consult. The most recent iteration of this, we polled folks between July 17 and 21. We use an online poll that reached actually about 2,200 of our fellow American citizens.

And the survey that we administer is really broken down into two parts. In one part, we ask a general battery of questions that we’re going to continue asking over time about general education policy topics, so things about school finance, school choice, the direction that people think that the education system is going, etc., questions that would be familiar to all of you if you’ve seen our schooling in America survey or most general surveys that you see out there about education.

Now, the other part of the survey actually gives us some flexibility to ask more topical questions. And as one might imagine, given the outsized role that the coronavirus has played over the course of the last several months, most of those questions that we’ve asked have been devoted to that. So today we’ll spend a little bit of time on both. We’ll look at the questions that we’ve asked in general terms about the American education system and if current events have changed some of these longstanding opinions that people have on questions like school finance or teacher pay or school choice, but then we’ll also dig into some of these specific questions around the coronavirus around what some public officials have been saying about it, etc.

Now, obviously we can’t do the whole thing justice. So we recommend you go to edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. So to say that again, edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. We’ve got some great, easy summaries that are there. You can see how this changes over time, because we ask these same questions every month. And if you go to the resources section, you can download all of the cross tabs and all of the stuff that numbers people love to get a better understanding of everything that’s going on. So maybe to start, I might throw a question to you, Paul, and ask about some of those general questions. So what are some of those questions that we’re going to just continue asking every month about education policy in general?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. Thanks, Mike. It’s great to be here with you and Drew. It’s become a monthly tradition for us. So we do ask a number of questions that we have traditionally asked in our schooling in America survey, looking at some of the big picture questions about, for example, whether respondents see the education system in their local community, their state, or nationally, if they see that going in the right direction or if it’s gone off on the wrong track.

And on that question, we have seen in recent months, there has been somewhat of a dip of the view of where people think education’s going, even in their local school districts. Where the high we saw was back in April, which about almost half saw were positive about education in their school district at 46 percent. Forty-four percent said they thought schooling was going well in their state. And then about a little more than a third thought that things were going in the right direction nationally. Well, things have gone down since then over the last few months. And so there might’ve been like a rally around the school effect during the pandemic at that point in April. And so now the numbers we see are really about a third for any one of those categories, whether they’re locally at the state level or nationally, where there is some positive sentiment thinking that schooling’s going in the right direction.

We also ask a number of school choice related questions about views on matters related to choice-based policies and reforms, such as public charter schools, education savings accounts, and school vouchers. And those opinions have been pretty stable over time. And so we see typically once they are given a definition or description about each of those kinds of reforms or policies, we see that support hovers around 70 percent, almost three quarters, where the respondents would indicate that they are at least somewhat or strongly supportive of charter schools of ESAs or vouchers. And really it’s noteworthy the margins, the differences between the positive responses and the negative responses. Those margins are very large and they can range anywhere from 25 to 50 points depending on different demographics. And so we see that school parents, parents of school-aged children tend to be most supportive of those school choice policies, where their support is in the high seventies and even higher.

And we will also see that other demographic groups like African-Americans, the Latino community, they also tend to be very supportive of school choice policies regardless of the type, whether it’s charters, ESA, or vouchers. And then on the other end of the spectrum, we see relatively speaking, the most… support among non-parents, which may not be a surprise because they don’t have as much vested interest in schooling matters and issues as well as political independence, where they tend to have a little bit lower levels of support, but they also have much higher responses that indicate they don’t know, or they don’t have an opinion. And so that’s also something that we see pretty consistently month to month.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I’d say in terms of the school choice types and awareness and favorability, it was really great to see a lot of those levels lining up with our annual Schooling in America Survey. Although the slide deck that we have specific to school choice hasn’t been released yet. Still working on that one. The questionnaire and top line results is available on our website if you want to see what those numbers are. And going back to the direction of K-12 education, Paul and Mike, I’m curious as to how much the decline related to the district has to do with districts releasing plans or not releasing plans related to what they are going to be doing in the fall. And personally, I think that that is something that may be having an impact on more questions than just the direction of K-12 education. So I think they were going to cover some of those, but just something for the listeners to keep in mind.

Mike McShane: No. I think that’s really interesting. And one of the advantages of the way that we’re doing this type of polling where we’re asking these questions every month, we may not be able to do it in real time, but we’ll definitely have the opportunity. And I know that there are several of us on the team that are interested in diving into these exact questions. Right? Which is, can we actually see when were these plans rolled out and do we see changes over time? So we’ll have these really interesting time series. So this is a great teaser for work that we’re going to be doing in the future on this. But I want to pivot a bit to some of these questions that are related to COVID-19 and its impact. One of the really interesting findings that showed up this month was a massive jump in the favorability of homeschooling.

So, we asked the question, “How have your opinions on homeschooling changed as a result of the coronavirus?” And for those of you who listened to this podcast last month, one of the things we talked about was how remarkably stable that number was. So, in March, 26 percent, April, 28 percent, May, 26 percent, June ,25 percent. Now, again, the best prediction of future things is what happened in the past. So if you would have asked in July, what do we think that number looks like?

I would have said probably within spitting distance of 25 percent of people seeing it as much more favorable. In July, it jumped to 43 percent. Forty-three percent of respondents said that they were much more favorable to homeschooling as a result of the coronavirus. You add that to another 31 percent who were somewhat more favorable and you are seeing three out of four parents saying they are more favorable to homeschooling. Look, I’m fascinated to think about why. I think we could all sort of spit ball of where we think this is happening, but what do we think is driving this and particularly, and maybe Drew, this comes to the point that you just raised. Do you think that it’s all of these plans got released in July and suddenly folks were making a comparative gesture? Or what do you see happening there?

Drew Catt: Yeah. I think it’s more than just the plans being released in July, but for a lot of states and a lot of districts, the deadline for parents to say whether they would be full online, full in person or a hybrid, depending on what the district’s options were, really, in my opinion, really forced to parents to think about what their children will be doing in the fall maybe more so than the previous months. Since deadlines, they have a great way of forcing us to really reevaluate our decisions. I love the quote by Douglas Adams. It’s like, “Deadlines. I love the whooshing sound that they make as they whizz by.”

So anecdotal evidence, I always go to the district high school that my wife works at. I heard a couple of weeks ago that there were 20 percent of the students that were going to be fully virtual of the 6,000 students in attendance. And nearly a thousand families had not replied. And the district was going to have to individually call more than 900 different families. Just be like, “Hey, you didn’t tell us what you’re doing. What are you going to be doing?”

Mike McShane: Whoa. That’s wild.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So even then, like that means that even in August, some parents still hadn’t decided what they’re doing. So I wonder how much the potential new trend that we’re seeing in July of two out of five parents being favorable of homeschooling, I wonder if that’s going to stick or maybe even increase based on the August results. So definitely something to keep an eye on.

Mike McShane: Totally. And it’s interesting. Another question that we asked was next year, if your school or school district allowed for the option of e-learning instead of physically going back to school, how likely would you be to enroll your child in e-learning or distance learning? So this is asking about some of these options that are available. And again, in previous months, so we looked in May and in June, the percentage of families that said they would be very likely to choose e-learning was pretty steady in the low to mid 30s. So, it was 32 percent of families were very likely in May, 35 percent were very likely in June. But again, in July we see this uptick, 43 percent now. Forty-three percent of families said that they are very likely to choose e-learning over any plan that sends children physically back into school. And then another, again, another 31 percent are somewhat likely.

So again, we’re talking three and four families are saying looking at the public school experience saying that they’re going to go e-learning as opposed to in person. Which again, I mean, Paul, this seems different than a lot of the conversation that you might hear on the news or things where it seems like parents can’t get kids out of their house soon enough. But it seems like e-learning might be the most popular choice. Is that how you read these numbers? Or what do you see when you look at these numbers?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah. It is fascinating to see this eight point jump from June to July on this question for those who say very likely to choose the remote learning option. And I think it really shows that there is a variety of opinions on this. The 43 percent represents a plurality, but you still have one out five who are on the other end, that would say not that likely or not at all likely to choose that remote learning option, which is a pretty substantial number.

And then I’m looking at… Some of the other results seem to mesh with the jumps and changes from June to July. And so on one question, we ask parents about what they are most concerned about. And we saw over that month period, there was another huge spike and parents saying that they were very concerned or extremely concerned about their child being exposed to coronavirus. There’s a 21 point jump month over month. And then we also see on another question, we asked about comfort levels and how comfortable they are with returning their children to school. And we see almost a third said they were not at all comfortable with their child returning to school. We saw another 15 percent that said not that comfortable, which actually lines up… That’s 43 percent.

You add those numbers up and that lines up with some of these percentages, reflecting that much more favorability to homeschooling and as well as the likelihood of choosing the remote learning option. And so it seems to be, really spit balling, but they’re around that like 40 percent really, there’s a solid number that parents are uncomfortable. They’re very open or likely to think about homeschooling or to do remote learning through their school district. But we still have on the other end of the spectrum, parents who would like to have their children go back to school. At least one out of five parents, roughly, or maybe about a quarter who probably are feeling along those lines or who feel very comfortable about their child returning to school. So it’s this triangulation of a few of these questions to try to make some sense of these big jumps from June to July. But it’s really fascinating because it’s rare to see these kinds of jumps and increases on a monthly basis.

Mike McShane: No. That’s a really good point. And I should add at a later question we asked about the number of options that are available. So we ask the question, do you think that schools should offer only one approach to educating K-12 students or provide multiple options? Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they want multiple options. So part of this could be we’re talking to folks and they have different opinions about what they want to do. And one would hope that as districts have the flexibility to offer multiple options, we may be able to make more people happy.

Drew, it’s funny because you brought up talking about your wife, the teacher, fantastic teacher that she is. And one of the questions that we asked and we talked about this on the last podcast and the numbers have changed in I think a weird way. Right? So we asked the question both to parents and to teachers about, “Do they think kids are going to go back?” So based on what you know right now, do you expect your child or children to be able to return in August and September as the way they have in previous years? And the question to teachers were more like, how comfortable do you feel working, going into schools, whatever? And the thing that I thought was wild was the question of, do you expect kids to come back?

It’s gone up since the last time we said this. Now 62 percent of parents expect students to return to school as they have in the past. But then the comfort level basically stayed the same. So again, this is me, I would have thought that people would say given rising case counts of the coronavirus, given these plans that are rolling out and actually seeing what districts offered, I would have thought parents would have said, “Oh gosh, it’s going to be much less likely that students will be coming back.” But it seems to be trending in the other direction. And so the question that I would have for you is what the heck do you think is going on there? And we’ve asked these questions of teachers as well. It’s not in this one, but where do you think they come down on this? Is this something that teachers are communicating to families? Where is this coming from?

Drew Catt: I think that a lot of it depends on, like, normal. They’re returning to August, September, like they have in previous years, whenever we specifically asked the question. I’m wondering how many parents are just like, “Oh yeah. Returning to school in any form in August, September, even if it’s hybrid, that’s like same timeline. So that’s like they have in previous years.” Versus the ones that are like, “Oh, masks are like in previous years, it’s just an additional safety feature.” So really, I think a lot of it can depend on that differentiation. In terms of teacher comfort level, the number of teachers saying very comfortable surprised me. I have family members on my side that are teachers, on my wife’s side that are teachers, friends that are teachers. I have yet to meet a single one that would say very comfortable.

Paul DiPerna: That’s not the vibe I’m getting either.

Drew Catt: I’ve met some that would say somewhat comfortable. But yeah, having been out in public areas over the last week, a lot of teenagers, I’m just personally, not that confident that… They’re still learning arithmetic and geometry. How many of them have enough spatial awareness of what six-feet distance is if it’s not marked on the floor? I don’t know.

Paul DiPerna: Just to jump in real quick, I’m wondering how much timing has to do with some of this too, where under normal circumstances doing these kinds of tracking surveys and polls you wouldn’t think that three or four weeks would make a big difference to cause some jumps and changes in opinion. But I do wonder… So, the teacher survey that we conducted in June and was released around the Fourth of July. That was conducted in mid-June when there might’ve been some rays of optimism about going back. And at very least there was just a lot more uncertainty. And so the parent responses that we just released today in our reporting are based on the surveys that they took July 17 to the 21. So mid-July, there were plans that were starting to roll out.

I think initial plans that were rolling out that at least were signaling hybrid versions of going back to school. So maybe two or three days a week of going back to school. And that might tie into maybe some limitations of the question where we don’t get as specific about what returning to school really is if it’s two or three days a week, or is it five days. And we do say, as they have in previous years, but I wonder to what degree school parents were just equating maybe hybrid schooling with normal schooling.

And then what we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks is a lot of school districts have reversed course and have gone fully remote and fully virtual and have changed their plans. And so we’ll see the next time we ask these questions among parents just where they come down now as these plans are shifting and changing to some degree and as they go back to school over the next month, month and a half or so. So that timing, I think for all of this, I mean, where several weeks, you wouldn’t think we could really change views and opinions pre pandemic, but now things are so fluid almost literally on a daily basis. And if weekly, that that could change things and just the expectations and perceptions around comfort.

Mike McShane: Which this is not some feature of our periodic polling that we’re doing. This is great. We’re able to do this.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And I really wonder how many parents were hung up on that August, September timeframe versus thinking, “Oh, as long as they’re back in the building in August or September versus October, which the Innovation Network School that I’m involved with here, a part of Indianapolis Public Schools system is full online and reevaluating over fall break in October. Which that’s been decided fairly recently, but I’d like to pivot back to the comfort level real quick, and I dug into the cross tabs and there is something that really stuck out to me.

And I wonder about doing the comparison over time. The demographic that was most likely to say, not at all comfortable were rural area individuals. And I wonder how much of that really indicates the shift that we were seeing in March and April with COVID-19 mostly in the urban areas and the shift to the more rural areas. I wonder if we had those two lines of individuals that are in urban areas replying to the question versus those in rural areas, replying to the question. If those lines would be exact opposite of each other and cross at some point.

Mike McShane: That’s super interesting. We should definitely dig into that. OK. Another question that we did, which I love. This was so much fun. And again, I’m interested in what you all think about this because I think some of these answers were surprising. So ,we asked survey respondents, we gave them quotes from various public officials about schools reopening and the coronavirus. And then we assessed their reactions to these quotes. Now I should say that we did not identify who made the quotes.

So, we didn’t say who the person was, but we asked them the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with quotes. So just for some examples that you might be interested in we use… And look, we’ll even do a little, those of you who are listening along, we’ll play a little game here and we can see who said this. So the quotation was, “Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis and firsthand, virtual learning has proven to be TERRIBLE,” terrible in all caps, “compared to IN SCHOOL,” which was also capitalized for interesting reasons, “or ON CAMPUS,” also capitalized for interesting reasons, “and learning. Not even close. Schools must be opened this fall. If not open, why would the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT give FUNDING,” with federal government and funding all capitalized as well, “It won’t!!!” Three exclamation points.

Those of you who might be guessing where that one came from, that was a quotation by President Donald Trump. There’s another quote, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “We should try, as the default, to get the kids to stay in school. If you’re in a part of the country where the dynamics of the outbreak are really minimal, if at all, then there’s no problem at all in getting back. If you’re in a situation where you’re in outbreak mode, then you have to leave it up to the local individuals.” We included several other quotes but one last one I’ll read came from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is, “For schools to safely reopen with students in the classroom, Congress must provide sufficient funding to help schools adapt and make necessary changes and accommodations.” So again, we asked, do you agree or disagree with the statement that public officials made?

Now when it comes to the strongly agree, it was really interesting because the number one answer or the number one thing that people agreed with was that school funding is necessary for reopening. The second, most popular one was a statement about how schools will be unable to go back to normal schooling. Then there was uncertainty and about prioritizing and protecting children, then expanding access to options for families. Then decision-making being conditional in circumstances. And then at the very bottom saying, school learning must be in person.

Now, one of the things that I thought was interesting on these was that I would have thought some of these categories that we might have even seen stronger. So, the percent strongly agree on school funding being necessary for all adults was about 41 percent, for school parents was 45 percent. Do you think that’s in line and what we should have expected. I was expecting to see, I don’t know, 60, 70 percent of people say something like that. Was that captured in, I don’t know what the one before strongly agree is, but what do we think happened there, Paul?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, so it was fascinating to do this type of thermometer reading on these various public statements. And I expected among parents to be higher and maybe perhaps more different than the general public. And so the fact that they basically were statistically similar, just a four point difference between the two on that strongly agree percentage, that was surprising. And so I thought the funding would be higher among parents. What didn’t surprise me too much is just taking them pre holistic view of the reactions to all the statements, I mean, generally speaking, parents were more likely to agree with all of them than the general public.

The general public was a little bit more discerning. There was some more variation on the percent strongly agree to those where a third or more of the parents have strongly agreed with all of those statements. And that loosely ties to some other findings where we’ve seen about trusting decision makers. And parents generally have higher levels of trust across the board than the general public, whether it’s teachers, other parents, school officials, school boards, US department of education, state legislature.

So, it seems like parents are more trusting, but it was interesting to see just how this spread worked out across the statements. And we intentionally left out any attribution to people or organizations who made these statements just so that we didn’t have that introduction of any kind of bias from the messenger. And for at least a few of these, there certainly would have been some strong messenger bias. And that’s testable and that’s something that we may want to consider next month is to do some A/B split sample experiment testing just to see to what extent the messenger matters or does the message, is that the main thing that really matters? But that’s just a quick take on my part.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I went ahead and pulled up the cross tabs as you were talking there, Paul, and it looks like there were 29 percent that were somewhat agreeable that the school funding is necessary for the schools to open. So that’s total of about 7 out of 10 Americans that were in agreement about that statement.

Mike McShane: That makes sense. That’s about where I thought it would be. Well look, fellas, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about the things I thought were interesting in this. Did I miss any? Were there any other data points graph that showed up in there that you’d like to point folks attention to?

Paul DiPerna: I think we’ve covered the ones that really stood out this month with the bigger month-over-month changes. I think we’ve gone over them. I’d really encourage any listeners who would like to dive into polling numbers and to look at what we call cross tabs and to be able to see all the different responses that different demographic groups have to these questions. We have those posted on our Public Opinion Tracker, dashboard, and website, and they’re all downloadable. And we do see we could really dive into a lot of these different questions about how different demographic groups do respond to some of these statements, either the statements we were just discussing or the more issue oriented questions, the COVID-related questions. There are differences that pop up between these groups.

Drew Catt: Yeah, for me, I would say the thing that stuck out is the question of how helpful do you think the following measures would be and allowing students to return to school safely. But yeah, it was just fascinating seeing the differences and parents thinking the increased disinfection and cleaning of facilities would be very helpful versus those who thought temperature checks or capacity limits on buses were the most helpful. And not surprisingly to me, the eliminating recess was at the bottom of the list because play, it’s important. And outside? We’ll see what happens.

So, it’s going to be an interesting couple of months and hopefully next time we’re on here talking about the monthly tracker, we’ll have some parents that are responding after their kids are already back in school. So, it’ll be interesting to see how that changes the results if at all.

Paul DiPerna: I think that’s a great point and we will ask some new questions in the next couple of months around what parents and students are actually doing and what teachers are actually doing in August and September. And to be able to compare those to these more opinion oriented or preference oriented types of questions. One thing I wanted to ask looking forward to and the last thing to mention is also, we should keep our eye on some of the school funding questions that we have with so much talk about what is necessary to go back to school and reopen schools and funding is being discussed a lot, at least in the news op-ed pages.

And so, we’ve seen a somewhat downward trend, slight downward trend on the proportions of the public and even parents who think that spending is too low for schools. And I wonder if some of the public debate might change that trajectory. And especially when we include information and statistics about per student spending for a given state, that also has a dampening effect on people’s attitudes about school funding, but it’s a wait and see. And I think that August and September, we could see a change in the trend to the extent that this is in the news and arguments are more persuasive one way or the other.

Mike McShane: Well, thanks to both of you for the great teaser for next month. We’ll definitely look forward to chatting with everybody then. Again, for those of you that are interested in finding all the data to talk about those cross tabs that Drew was digging into in real time, which I think is quite a credit to him during this conversation, edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. Up in the upper right hand corner, there’s a tab for resources. You get the whole questionnaire, you get all the cross tabs, you get all the decks, everything that are there. It’s all free for everybody to use.

We’re not hiding anything from the sides or keeping it to ourselves. Any of the stuff that we talked about on here, beat us to it. Nothing would make us happier than to get some of these awesome answers to these questions. So Paul, Drew, thanks a million for chatting about this today. Look forward to talking to you again next month. And, everybody, we look forward to having you join us again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.