Ep. 203: Schooling in America Survey – K–12 Education and School Choice

September 1, 2020

In this episode, we chat about results in part two of our Schooling in America Survey, “K–12 Education and School Choice Reforms.” We unpack the American public’s views on the direction of K–12 education and more.

Click here to read the full report.

Marty Lueken: Hi. I’m Marty Lueken, EdChoice’s director of fiscal policy and analysis, and welcome to EdChoice Chats. On this episode, I am joined by three very talented colleagues of mine: Jason Bedrick, Drew Catt and Mike Shaw. Drew is our director of state research and special projects. Mike is our research analyst, and Jason is our director of policy. Drew and Mike are two of the authors on EdChoice’s newest report, the 2020 Schooling in America: K-12 education and School Choice Reforms. Jason does a lot of really good groundwork for us, and he’s here to offer us some of his perspectives, what the results in this report can mean for our listeners and partners of the states, and maybe talk about what’s going on recently in legislatures. Gentlemen, welcome to the program.

Mike Shaw: Thanks, Marty.

Drew Catt: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Marty Lueken: All right. Well, let’s take the plunge. Mike, why don’t you take the lead-off spot? Can you tell our listeners about the SIA polling project and how long it’s been conducted?

Mike Shaw: Yeah. Sure, Marty. Long-time listeners to the podcast might’ve heard our other iterations of our 2020 Schooling in America polling survey project. As we said before, we kind of did things a little differently this year in splitting up the polling, one, into two different waves, so some results from our first wave, which was conducted in late May and early June of this year. But also just in the way we report out the results, kind of segmented by topic area into what I think is pretty digestible slide decks and graphs, as well as discussions like we’re having here today. We’ve already talked about some of our other takeaways from the first wave. Those dealt with parents and students’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic that ended schooling during the spring, as well as a broader view on homeschooling, which we’ve polled about consistently in the past, but we really wanted to center in on this year with just so many people learning at least virtually and from home.

Homeschooling has traditionally been one of our school choice focus areas, and we’re broadly going to be talking about today K-12 education and educational choice programs, for Americans’ views of these programs as well as parents’ experiences with them. To do so, we centered in on our survey of about 1,600 adults, parents of school-age children among them. What’s great about these results is not only do they offer a snapshot in time of Americans’ views on school choice programs, but because we’ve been polling about these programs for so long now, this is now the eighth year of our Schooling in America project, we can observe some really interesting trend lines about how Americans’ views have changed year-over-year.

What we’d wind up doing later on is seeing how Americans’ views have changed from the earlier days of the pandemic back in the spring and early summer into how those views might have changed over the fall and this first full semester, of what many have termed our new normal. That’s kind of the outlay, and Drew, I didn’t know if you wanted to add anything to that as far as methods and survey design with our choice-related questions.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and if you’ve really paid attention to our Schooling in America surveys in the past, these are going to be the questions that really stick out. These are the ones that we’re able to generate some trend lines going all the way back to 2013 for some of the questions, and who live on school vouchers, we can even go back a little further. The benefit of asking some of these questions year-over- year-over-year is we’re able to generate the trends and see changes over time. As Mike kind of alluded to with this year is we’re doing it in two waves, so we’re not only going to be able to compare results across years, but hopefully we’ll be able to compare results within year, with more Schooling in America reports coming in wave two results later this fall, early winter within this calendar year.

But yeah, I’ll really jump into the results, focusing on one of the ones that’s our bread and butter, which is the direction of K-12 education. This is one we’ve been asking since 2013, and this year, more than half of Americans say that K-12 is on the wrong track, identical to last year. About two out of five think that it’s heading in the right direction, which is actually a 16-point increase since 2016, which getting into the weeds of methodology, we kind of switched up our modality. We were doing phone only, and then we went to mixed mode starting in 2018. So there could be a little bump there, a little shift there since we’re doing both online and phone now compared to just phone earlier. But again, even if you just look at the trend lines, the results are fairly consistent with more than half saying wrong track every single year that we’ve asked the question.

Marty Lueken: That’s interesting. I’d like to take a step back and just ask each of you what stuck out, if there’s anything that particularly stuck out for you this time around.

Mike Shaw: Absent any individual data point, and this is kind of going back to the importance of inside the trend results, I was struck by this year both the continued decline as well as from year over year, the drop in satisfaction with homeschooling. Jason might be able to add more to this, working with all the parents he does, but I think you usually get a certain type of parent who homeschools, who is maybe quite confident in him or herself and their ability to homeschool, and it just really fits their lifestyle. It’s still a very high satisfaction rate. Seventy-two percent of parents who homeschooled this year said they were satisfied, but it’s dropped by more than 10 percentage points within the past two years, and it’s now fallen from in 2018 the highest satisfied schooling sector between private charter, public schools, and homeschooling, of our main four schooling sectors, to now it’s just at the lowest by a tad.

In some sense, it’s maybe semantics because parents are so overwhelmingly satisfied with homeschooling, but it does make you wonder and give you pause about just with the different social, work pressures brought about by the pandemic, and maybe the rush of more parents to homeschool given the pandemic and other factors, if you’re maybe seeing a different or new population homeschooling than we have in years past. That’s what struck me this year.

Marty Lueken: That’s the thing that struck me, too, Mike. Jason, do you have anything to add to that? What do you think might be going on there?

Jason Bedrick: Certainly. I think it’s worth following up with a survey that can provide us a lot more context, but I think that’s right. I think you are, especially this year, seeing a new population that’s homeschooling, a population that had previously chosen not to, but that is… Look, for a lot of families, homeschooling is an affirmative choice that this is the best case scenario. They are very enthusiastic. They want to do it. This year, you had a lot of families that were homeschooling as a least bad alternative. As Mike pointed out, even for those homeschooling families that previously were excited to homeschool, changes with the pandemic, maybe there’s another spouse who’s now trying to work at home while you’re homeschooling, that can be difficult.

I know, for example, having five kids at home and trying to record podcasts has been a challenge for my family, trying to coordinate where everybody is physically in the house as we do this, so I imagine that that is an issue. Plus, a lot of homeschooling families were used to going out and relying on museums and shared community spaces that just are not available right now. And so you think, “Well, oh yeah. Those people at physical schools, public schools, private schools, charter, what have you, they’re affected, but homeschoolers aren’t.” No, homeschoolers are really affected by this as well. But what makes it a little more interesting is that, as Mike pointed out, some of this decline started even before the pandemic. And so we can’t say that this is all pandemic related, and that’s why I think it is worth exploring further.

Drew Catt: Yeah. As the former homeschooler myself for elementary school, I definitely remember the homeschool days at the local theater for the Shakespeare play and the homeschool days at the museum. And yeah, those trips were definitely some of my favorites. Yeah, the experience just wouldn’t be the same without those, so you’re onto something there, Jason. And for those of you that are interested in a deeper dive into those individuals who were homeschooling pre-pandemic and those who were not, and their views of homeschooling, highly recommend checking out our previous Schooling in America podcast and the previous slide deck that does dive deep into the homeschooling waters, if you will. But the thing, really, when we’re comparing schooling satisfaction, I agree that the decline in homeschooling sticks out. It was also striking to me that in terms of most satisfied to least satisfied in terms of the physical schooling sectors, it went private school, public charter school, and district school.

That’s just of the current school parents that are providing those satisfaction rankings. Then interestingly, when we asked all respondents, this was more respondents that gave any grade to a school in their area, the ranking is the same. The private schools received the highest grades with about 70 percent receiving an A or B from all respondents, and then 73 from just the parents, followed by the public charter schools being in the middle of the grades and public district schools receiving, I guess, the lowest grades. But again, overall people highly rate the schools in their area. So even the lowest combination of D and F schools is 21 percent for the public district schools when looking at the entire sample of respondents. So that is kind of striking that satisfaction levels do, I guess, match up with, I guess, for lack of a better phrase, perceived quality.

Marty Lueken: That’s really interesting. I think one of the slides that sticks out to some people is the one that compares school type preferences with actual enrollment, and results from previous years tends to show this large disconnect. Can you talk a bit about that disconnect and if anything has changed this year?

Drew Catt: Sure. Thanks for asking that question, Marty. We didn’t do a trend line for this one this year, which we did last year, so if you’re interested in the historical results, definitely recommend checking out the 2019 Schooling in America report, but yet they are fairly consistent over time. When we asked the combination of questions of, “If given the option and it was your choice, where would you send your child to school,” it’s almost evenly split between district school and private school for the top responses, with private school having a slight edge with about two out of five parents giving that preference. One out of 10 would prefer homeschooling, which is definitely higher than the national average of about three percent, but yeah, that 40 percent for private school is five times the national average, which is just striking.

Nationally, we have about 83 percent of K-12 students enrolled in a public district school, but less than half of that percent would actually prefer to enroll their child in a public district school if it was their option. We kind of did a split sample experiment with this, which is basically we asked half the population one version of the question and the other half a separate version, the difference being the insertion of the phrase, “and financial costs and transportation were of no concern.” We found that when we include that phrase when asking folks if it were their decision and they can select any type of school, what they would select in order to obtain the best education for their child, there is a little shift. There is a four percent bump for the homeschoolers, so 8 percent to 12 percent.

There’s a very, very minor shift for public charter schools and private schools, but the same size bump that there is for homeschooling, there is a decrease for public district schools, which is really, really interesting to me. So I really wonder how much of that is the parents that would tentatively send their child to a public district school, but when they see that costs are not of a concern, they would rather homeschool.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, and the only other thing I’d add to this, to these results is the split one, we split out by race and ethnicity. Interestingly, the three races we centered on—African-Americans, Hispanics and white parents—they all had, like all of Americans, had diverse schooling preferences when you look at schooling sectors. Interestingly, the black and Hispanic parents slightly favored, actually more than slightly favored private schools when you compare composite results with white parents. This is truly slightly, 40 to 30 percent, slightly preferring public district schools. And so that might raise, and Jason, feel free to chime in on this, some thoughts about how we set up our public education system, and what kind of schools exist in certain areas and for certain communities.

But what I found especially interesting when comparing these kind of preferences and pluralism for schooling preferences, is when you actually looked at people who have experienced different schooling sectors, each race had a different schooling sector they were most satisfied with. So it does kind of play out, where even though you might have diverse preferences, experiences might play out differently.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense. It also makes sense that families who have access to high-quality public schools are going to be happier with the public schooling system than families who are more choice-deprived, those families who can’t afford to live in an area with a high-quality public school and can’t afford to pay private school tuition. Those families are going to be less satisfied with their local public school. They’re going to be less supportive, and they’re going to be more supportive of educational choice policies, which is exactly what we see among the African American and Hispanic populations.

Marty Lueken: I think that’s a nice segue into, at least maybe for some of the readers of this report, the meat and potatoes, the respondent’s views about educational choice reforms. Let me ask Drew first, do you see any trends with respect to the support or opposition to the different types of reforms and how you see it trending?

Drew Catt: Yeah. Thanks, Marty. Education Savings Accounts, which if you are unfamiliar with those and listening to this, highly recommend going to edchoice.org and looking at our either Fast Facts or What is School Choice, just to learn more about what Education Savings Accounts ,or ESAs, are. ESAs, for four years running now, are by far the most popular in terms of favorability. We hit the highest mark this year at 78 percent expressing support compared to opposition. We’ve also seen the trend of tax credit scholarships being the second most favorable, so it’s a little more than two thirds of respondents favoring tax-credit scholarships.

The interesting trend, I would say over the last, actually, for the entirety that we’ve been asking these questions all the way back to 2013, is the interplay between vouchers and charter schools. In 2013, they were kind of even at 60/60. Vouchers had the edge in ’14 and ’15. Charters had the edge in ’16. Vouchers had the edge for another couple of years, and then it switched back to charter schools last year, and this year it switched back to vouchers again. Any given year, it’s usually not more than a two to three percent gap, with this year being 65 percent favoring vouchers and 64 percent favoring charter schools.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, and when I look at these results, because we also asked for, at least for a few of the programs, reasons for supporting or disapproving of these types of school choice, and with ESAs in particular, as Drew mentioned, there’s been a trend of increased support for ESAs. That may be somewhat intuitive because they are relatively new programs, certainly the newest types of school choice programs, and there’s still a fair amount of Americans that don’t know about them.

Drew Catt: That’s a great point that you bring up, Mike, because as our survey showed, when we asked on our baseline question without a definition, we found that 35 percent of general population respondents had never heard of ESAs, and that’s compared to 29 percent who had never heard of vouchers and 15 percent who had never heard of charter schools.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, exactly. To clarify and further add to Drew’s point, these approval ratings for choice programs were after we provided what we deemed to be pretty complete and thorough definitions of the programs and how they actually work. There are other point providers who just give a blanket term, and you see support levels not as high because of that typically, but we think definitions with all polling and surveying is quite important, especially with some of these niche education policy areas that we focus on here at EdChoice. But regarding reasons for supporting ESAs, what I found interesting and maybe contextualizing with the current state of affairs, is three in 10 parents who favored ESAs stated more freedom and flexibility was the reason they favored them. Because ESAs are not in a ton of states, and like I said, are still relatively new, maybe that was a nebulous concept for the longest time. But I do wonder, and Jason, would love your thoughts on this, if that’s becoming more actualized with parents maybe needing more education funding for home or service-based opportunities given the current state of affairs.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, I think that’s a very plausible explanation. In years past, people thought of school choice. In the movement, we’ve been trying to move away from school choice and toward educational choice, hence the name of our organization, EdChoice, recognizing that education is a lot broader than what takes place in a brick and mortar school, but I think the perception of the general public was that formal education takes place in a school building for the vast majority of children. And so when they’re thinking about choice, they’re thinking primarily in the paradigm of a choice among schools, and so a voucher is a good fit for that.

But the experience with COVID-19, being at home and trying to cobble something together, whether you’re using online courses or tutoring or homeschool materials, there’s a lot of different types of expenses and different categories of expenses, and those are almost all covered by Education Savings Accounts. There, you actually see that families have much more freedom and flexibility when it comes to customizing their child’s education, and being thrown into this situation, I think a lot of other families that had never considered education outside of school as an option are now recognizing how much learning really can take place outside the classroom and are more open to updating our education funding to account for that reality.

Drew Catt: It’s striking to me, given that context, the breakout of awareness of ESAs. This is another one that we broke it out by race ethnicity, and I would say the four of us talking on the podcast are statistical anomalies. But again, we are all extremely close to the issue, because it’s 37 percent of white school parents. So actually it would just be me, Marty, and Jason on that, since Mike, you don’t have any kids that I’m aware of, or that I think you’re aware of either, or just in general.

Mike Shaw: Can confirm.

Drew Catt: So yeah, it’s more than one out of three white school parents at 37 percent, almost two out of five, that have no idea what an ESA is. They’ve never heard of it before. Compare that to the Black school parents and the Hispanic school parents, it’s 22 percent and 23 percent. That means that at least three out of four have heard of them before, and the weird statistic that jumped out to me on this chart is that Hispanic school parents actually are more aware of ESAs than they are school vouchers. That’s maybe within the margin of error for the population, but yeah, still, even that they were kind of neck-in-neck is really, I think, good news in general for what has happened with ESAs, and how they’ve been growing in size and growing across the states.

Jason Bedrick: I think this fits in with what we were discussing earlier, that families that are satisfied with their assigned district school are going to be less likely to explore alternatives, but families that are less satisfied with their assigned school, they have a greater incentive to go and find out about Education Savings Accounts and vouchers and other options. So it makes perfect sense that lower-income and minority families would be much more up to speed than better-off, whiter families when it comes to their educational options.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and pulling this ESA thread just a little more, we like to ask two versions of the same question about ESAs, getting at the universality aspect of it. For those of you who are avid listeners, I’m sure you’ve heard us talk about universal school choice once or twice. But yeah, here at EdChoice, we definitely believe that every child should be able to access every program. Some people believe that ESAs should be available to all families regardless of income and special needs. That’s one of the ways that we asked the question, and then the other version, we limited it to families based on financial need. The white school parents, it’s about 80 percent agreeing with universal, 56 percent agreeing with needs-based. The black school parents, it was 83 percent, 58 percent, so a little two to three-point increase on either. But the Hispanic school parents, 89 percent agreed with universal school choice compared to 70 percent agreeing that it should be based on financial needs. Either way, those are huge, huge numbers. So yeah, Jason, what do you make of that?

Jason Bedrick: Yeah, that makes sense. One thing that I actually emphasize to our friends who only support school choice if it’s needs-based, if you really want these programs to be politically sustainable, if you care most about low-income families and the most disadvantaged families, which I do, it makes sense to have a universal program as opposed to a program that is only for those kids, and there’s a few reasons for that. First of all, politically speaking, universal programs are much more politically sustainable. There’s always higher support in the general population for a program that everybody can access as opposed to programs that only low-income families can access. Secondly, when you just have a low-income program, there’s a small number of families that are able to participate. These programs tend to just fill empty seats in existing schools, but it’s not enough to generate that education entrepreneurship that we need to fundamentally change the system.

In the current system, advantaged families already have more access to a quality education than low-income families. The major concern is, “Well, if we have a universal program, it’s going to widen the gap.” Well, the gap is already incredibly wide, and it is those who are the least advantaged and have least access to choice that have the most to gain from a system in which everybody has a choice. Instead of the system now, we basically, through our school district system, we’ve created a zero sum game where it’s essentially like the old fashioned red lining. We’re going to draw a line, and the well-off families are on one side of the line and the less well-off families are on the other side of the line. On one side, you’ve got high-quality schools, and on one side, you have low-quality schools. What we need to do is erase those lines, put everybody in the same boat. That’s the way to improve the lot of the least among us.

Marty Lueken: There’s a lot of encouraging information, I think, in here. We have awareness that seems to be on the up and up. Support seems to be on the up and up. Speaking of program design, Jason, like to ask, could you talk a little bit for our listeners about how things are playing out in states right now, especially given the current events surrounding the COVID recession?

Jason Bedrick: Well, as you might imagine, actually, there was not a lot of movement on educational choice this year. I mean, in a few states there was. There was a bill passed tweaking the ESA program in Arizona. There was a bill creating a new tax credit scholarship program in Utah. Also, the largest expansion of school choice in a single bill in Florida and a few others very early in the year. But because of COVID-19, most state legislatures shut down fairly early in their legislative sessions, and there were a lot of school choice bills or educational choice bills that were making their way through committees and didn’t end up being acted upon, because the legislatures closed down. Then when they reopened, many of them said, “We are only dealing with pandemic-related legislation right now, and we’re just going to kick the can on everything else until next year or whenever the pandemic ends,” which is perfectly reasonable.

That said, because of the way that the pandemic has affected schools, there has been a renewed surge in interest in educational choice policies. I mean, there’s a reason that the President and his administration have been emphasizing school choice so much. We see that a lot of recent polls are showing upticks in support for school choice. We see a lot of families that are upset about their schools remaining closed, and so legislators are falling. I do expect that in the coming year, so long as the state legislatures actually open back up in a timely manner, that we will see more school choice programs.

I should mention too, that there have been several states where the governors have used GEAR funding. These are a part of the Federal CARES Act. Gave governors these emergency education funds that they are able to… They had basically a wide discretion in how they could spend these funds, and in New Hampshire and North Carolina and Oklahoma, and we’re hearing possibly soon in Texas, the governors have either put some of those funds into existing school choice programs or have created new school choice programs, or even actually Education Savings Accounts, in the case of a couple of states, that for the most part, low-income families have access to. Just given that, I definitely think that in the coming year, we are going to see many states considering expanding or adopting new educational choice policies.

Marty Lueken: Exciting times. Predictions? Do you think next year will exceed 2011 as the year of school choice or will be the year of educational choice, I should say?

Jason Bedrick: Well, I think 2015 was the big year, right? I think 2015 even surpassed 2011. I don’t know that we’re going to pass the high mark, just given all the uncertainty, but let’s say, I think it will be, in the last decade, I think it will be in one of the top three.

Drew Catt: The double-edged sword of that though, is more work for all of us, more numbers to remember, more programs to keep track of, more legislation to track, more participation data to request from states to put into our wonderful ABCs of school choice. But hey, I don’t know any of us that shy away from hard work around here at EdChoice, so welcome to the challenge.

Jason Bedrick: Indeed, Drew. Agreed.

Marty Lueken: Is there anything else you guys want to add or say before we wrap things up? Is there anything you want to applaud at all, or something for our listeners to keep an eye out for?

Mike Shaw: Yeah, Marty. I would just reiterate for listeners to feel free to check out our slide deck on the school choice-related results, and also stay tuned throughout the year for just our fairness point projects at EdChoice. Paul DiPerna heads up our really interesting monthly tracker poll, where you can get state breakouts and see more month-over-month trend lines for various results of education reform and education-related topics. Like I said before, we’re also going to be releasing the second wave of Schooling in America results, looking more at parents in American cities of the state of affairs in the fall.

I would also just say, if any of this is not in depth enough for you, and in many ways, we’ve only scratched the surface, if you have particular questions about any of our polling data, whether it be this year’s Schooling in America, our monthly tracker, or years past for any of your research or outreach project needs, feel free to reach out to us directly. The best way is probably our team’s email address, research@edchoice.org. We’d be happy to try and facilitate any data requests or questions you may have.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and I also highly recommend checking out edchoice.org/engage. Mike has a great blog post tying together the findings in some context from everything that we’ve talked about on this podcast. Also, if you’re interested in more demographic breakouts, I actually had a post that just went up earlier that did a deep dive, not into race ethnicity, because that was included in the COVID-19 and K-12 education slide deck, which was the first one released, but with a dive into community-type breakouts—urban, suburban, small town, rural—income levels, and political affiliation. Yeah, it’s really interesting going through all those and seeing who answers similarly to other demographic groups.

Marty Lueken: Well, thanks. That’s certainly a lot of good information, and more to come for sure, so stay tuned. Well, thanks to each of you for joining, guys. This has been fun. Well, that’s another edition of EdChoice Chats in the books. Thanks to our listeners for joining. Be sure to check out the description of this podcast for a link to the report discussed in this episode. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast whenever you listen to them, so you never miss another episode. Thanks for listening. We look forward to seeing you soon with more EdChoice chats.