Ep. 252: Monthly Tracker Results – April 2021

May 18, 2021

In this episode, we share key takeaways from our April 2021 wave of polling as reported on our EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker. For more from the full report, visit edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is our monthly installment of our tracker podcast conversation. As you all know, every month, here at EdChoice in partnership with Morning Consult, poll a nationally representative sample of Americans. Every quarter, we pull a nationally representative sample of teachers, but that’s not up for this month. This week, we’re going to be talking about the poll that we put in the field from April 16 – 26, and what Americans think about a variety of education topics—coronavirus-related, school choice-related, pandemic pods, vaccines, we’ve got it all. And to help me discuss this, we have two very special participants today, and they are special for their own reasons.

First off, we have a voice you have come to know on this podcast, John Kristof, and it is special because it is in fact, John Kristof’s birthday today. Now, we’re obviously not releasing this podcast on the day that we are recording it, but on this day that we are recording it, it is his birthday. So, I’d like to think of this as elongating the celebration of your birthday, because now, from now until when this podcast is heard by people, maybe they may be listening to it months from now, and they will have the opportunity to celebrate your birthday. I won’t ask you how old you’re turning today, because (a) I don’t really want to put you on the spot and giving that personal information, and (b) it is going to make me feel terrible for the long much of time that has existed between our two lives.

But we also have on the line, I think a new person who has not participated in this particular iteration of the podcast, Keri Hunter, our vice president of training and outreach who’s actually now gone out into the world on several occasions. And I think we’ll have some really interesting insights about a couple of the topics that we’re talking about today. So, I’m going to kick it off with a common theme that we’ve talked about on this podcast, but the return to school. So many of you are probably familiar with every month, we’ve asked this question: Based on what you have seen, read or heard about the coronavirus outbreak so far, how comfortable are you with your child or children returning to school?

This time we’re seeing these numbers pull away. For April, now 64% of school parents say that they are comfortable, that’s combining somewhat comfortable and very comfortable. And only 31% of parents said that they were uncomfortable. That is a change of eight points in the positive direction, so it’s up eight points for comfortable and down nine points for uncomfortable. So, we’re really starting to see these numbers shift. We have a slide on the deck that shows the kind of trends over time and they’re rapidly swinging upward. So, John, when you look at these numbers, what do you see?

John Kristof: First of all, thank you for kind birthday wishes. Everyone, if you want to wish me happy birthday, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or something like that.

Mike McShane: There you go. Always be closing, John, always be closing.

John Kristof: Anyway. Yeah, there’s just been a big swing in positivity about how comfortable parents are with in-person education since the year 2021 began and particularly since February. So, to put those numbers in perspective, in January, we were still below 50% of parents saying they were at least somewhat comfortable with their kids returning to in-person education. And so in February, we hit 50% and that was the first time we hit half of parents saying that they were at least somewhat comfortable with in-person education since October. In October is kind of when we saw a second surge, if you will, and we saw bigger and bigger spikes and some school re-closures and things like that.

So, it was very recent that this uptick started, but once the uptick began, it just kept going. So, we went from less than one in two parents saying that they were somewhat comfortable with in-prison education to now, it is about two out of every three. And that’s a big swing and it’s pretty easy to draw at least some connection to the widespread use of vaccines.

And one of the reasons you can say that is because this positivity with in-person education is also kind of related to what we find in the same survey of people saying that they feel like COVID is being very disruptive to their everyday life, to their community’s life and things like that, when perceptions of disruption have gone down, that is about the same time that perceptions of in-person education being safe has risen and treatment there that obviously we’re all familiar with is vaccine started to hit the market, if you will. And a lot more people were able to get vaccinated, starting with higher age groups and those with comorbidities and things like that in February, but February is when we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, or at least some people saw a light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s when perceptions began to change a little bit.

And once that change started, it kept going. I would love to see this number continuing to rise at the same pace because we’ll get at three out of every four parents in a month or two at this rate, and that would be very exciting, but yeah, good news here.

Mike McShane: And if that continues, by summer, we’ll be at 127%, which will be incredible. But Keri—

John Kristof: Exactly.

Mike McShane: So, folks are coming back to school, but we, EdChoice as an organization, we are thinking about how we operate. We’ve obviously put a lot of stuff on hold or moved things virtual over the course of the last year. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, we have a massive training and outreach part of our operation, where we work with parents and we work with legislators and we work with local community members to advocate for school choice to understand school choice. Obviously, Keri is at the helm of all of this. And she’s had to pivot over the course of this last year, but now it appears we’re kind of pivoting back and we’re looking to do more stuff in person. I think we had our first in-person event last week, we’re recording this on May 10, but I would love to just hear your perspective, was it kind of weird to go back to serve in person? Where people super excited about it, hesitant? What was that like?

Keri Hunter: Yes. Well, last week was interesting. We had two virtual events and then a real live in-person Kentucky parent training. What was interesting is that we expected about eight to 10 people and we had 16, which is rare. Usually, you get an RSVP list and people are dropping off, but we actually had almost double what we had expected. So, that was nice. I think parents were ready to get together, to talk about things, and there’s a lot of pent-up frustration with school closures, and a lot of folks are wanting to hear more about school choice. So, it was nice to be together to be in person.

We stumbled a little bit and just remembering how to do live Q&A and not have the Zoom chat working, and so it was really wonderful. And also we struggled with remembering how to take breaks so that you can’t just turn off your camera and go mess with the dog or go to the restroom. Like, you’re real live and in person. So, it took some getting used to, but it was wonderful to be with the group down in Kentucky last week. And this week, we’re having another group event that we’re looking forward to as well.

Mike McShane: So, now John, a point that you brought up earlier was the role of vaccines have obviously played in all of this and I’ve been really interested. So, we have been tracking, we’ve asked this question and this is to our sample of all adults, “When an FDA approved vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is available to you, would you agree to be vaccinated?” And one of the interesting things, we have a slide in here where we break it down sort of groups that are most likely to say that they’re going to get vaccinated or they’ve already been vaccinated. Those that are moderately so, and those that are less likely to. And we broke it down by these various groups and I see almost across the board, every month we do this, every group that we look at says that they are more likely to get vaccinated. Do you see in there, just looking at these, did any numbers stand out to you or any patterns kind of emerge?

John Kristof: Yeah. Actually, a couple of numbers that jump out to me, one is the jump in the percentage of people who say they’re from rural areas, saying that they’d be likely to get vaccinated compared to the month prior, an extra 9 percentage points of people who say they’re from rural areas, say that they were vaccinated or were likely to try to get vaccinated. And to me as someone who’s been moderately tracking the vaccination efforts across the country, that is exciting, because I know there was a pause in the Johnson & Johnson distribution due to concerns from the FDA. And my understanding is that the Johnson & Johnson pause was going to be a bit of an issue for rural areas because rural areas can struggle with the super freezing of vaccines that you need for a Moderna and Pfizer.

So, the fact that that got back online, I think is exciting. Now, I don’t know how much of that plays into rural people’s expectations of whether they’ll get vaccinated or not. But I had a moment where I was wondering like, “Are we going to see some very heavy geographic concentrations of people who are vaccinated, and what is this going to mean for interstate travel in the future and things like that?” So, something like rural populations kind of continuing to climb saying that they’re going to get vaccinated, it’s always good to see people in the lower-income brackets, younger people millennials also high positive changes in likelihood of getting vaccinated, saying that they already are vaccinated. Basically, the populations that from the beginning we knew were going to be a little bit harder to swing around, those numbers have not stopped climbing yet. So, that’s good.

And when you look at the numbers overall, because we aggregate these numbers as well, when we started tracking this question a little over a third of people said that they were for sure not going to get a vaccine when it was available, and that number has just been decreasing over time to about a quarter now. And that resonates with people’s perceptions of vaccines and how that affects, how dangerous COVID is to their communities and things like that.

Mike McShane: Well, now sort of highlighting the dichotomy between Keri, you and John and I as we dig in these numbers and look at the things, we’re sort of highlighting the fact that you actually go out in the world and do things, so I’d be interested you have… So, I’ve obviously looked at these numbers, John, I see the same thing that the same patterns, I think everything is trending in the right direction. There’s still some pockets here and there that are a little bit worrisome, but sort of good problem to have, things are moving in the right direction. But Keri, you’ve actually been volunteering at a vaccine clinic. So, I would love to hear… Obviously, we look at the numbers of these things, but I would love to know your experience, who are you seeing there as you talk to folks, how do people feel about it? What’s happening there?

Keri Hunter: Yeah. I’ve been volunteering with my very small rural suburban-ish county at their vaccine clinic. We give out only one type of vaccine. I’ve been doing this since February, putting in anywhere from eight to 16 hours a week volunteering. And it could be its own anthropology study of its own because it’s been interesting. The older folks came running, they wanted the vaccines. Whether they believed the science or believed politicians or not, they kind of came in and were like, “Yep, give it to me. I think I need this.” And then we’ve seen kind of a slow drift off and we’ve actually shut down some of our hours, that’s how less of a demand that is going right now for the vaccine. And so, I think right now, what we’re seeing in the clinic are people who waited.

They wanted to see if their friends had any bad side effects. They wanted to wait around and just have this really unscientific period of time, a wait-and-see kind of experience for themselves. And now, they’re slowly trickling in and many of them say… They’re coming in, they’re getting paid by their employer to come in. A lot of factory people where they’re close to each other and the employer’s like, “Yeah, we can’t risk this anymore. We’ve got to start paying folks to come in and get…” They get a certain amount for one dose and a bonus once they get that second dose in.

And then what we’re seeing is a lot of people who are just having one-on-one conversations with friends, family or doctors convincing them. I don’t think the big national ad campaigns are working to convince people. The shaming is not working at all, but it’s the one-on-one conversation. There’s a saying in volunteerism, like “The way to get somebody to volunteer is just to ask them.” You’re less likely to say no if someone asks you one-on-one. So, I think that’s happening more. So, if you’ve got any buddies out there that still need to get vaccinated, having those sort of private one-on-one conversations work, but it’s been a highlight of any volunteer project I’ve ever done in my life because you feel like you’re giving people hope, you’re giving them some safety. And I think back to your numbers about people wanting to send kids back to school. I know some of my friends, they felt that if the teachers were protected, that was kind of the trigger point for them to feel safe about going back to the classroom.

So, I think there’s a combination of fatigue of having kids home and feeling safer to send them back in the fall, but also feeling like the teachers and the bus drivers and the cafeteria workers now have had plenty of time to get their vaccines and they feel safer about sending them back. I could spend hours talking about vaccination. I get to hear all of the experts answer every single question you could ever think of about the vaccines, and I get to hear about the same 10 questions all day, every day, and those answers. And so we kind of call ourselves vaccine evangelists. We’re just going out there trying to talk people into getting their shots.

Mike McShane: Well, that’s great. And no need to evangelize here. I am now fully vaccinated. What up, Moderna? Got me those 28 days apart. I got my second dose. Actually, it was funny at first through a health clinic. I got my second in a Target in Shawnee, Kansas, where there’s little CVS in the Target. And actually, I got the vaccine—I kid you not—right next to the jewelry section. So, there were people shopping for kind of a statement necklace or some kind of boho earrings while I was being injected. And it had a certain surreal bit to it that I really appreciated. But now I’m footloose and fancy-free and looking forward to getting back out into the world.

But now, look, back to the sort of topic of schooling in general. So, one of these questions we’ve been asking again over and over, a classic kind of satisfied, dissatisfied with schooling. So, we asked school parents, “To what extent are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your children’s experiences in the following types of schooling?” We offer private school, public charter school, homeschool and district school. And in this most recent iteration, 91% of parents said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with private schools. That’s 90% for public charter schools, 86% for homeschools, and 82% for district schools. Keri, you had mentioned, you had been fielding some calls at various times from perhaps the parents that are on the somewhat or very dissatisfied end of the spectrum, so I would love to know your experiences in talking directly with folks. What are the things that they have been satisfied about? What are the things that they’re dissatisfied about? What’s going on there?

Keri Hunter: Absolutely. I use this analogy about preaching to the choir. Years ago, in the school choice movement, you were trying to build the choir, get people to think about this whole concept of school choice. And then in the last few years, when we do our trainings, it kind of feels like we’re doing a little bit of preaching to the choir, as they say, and folks were already on board and they were okay with the concept and they wanted to know how do I get it? How do I get it bigger? And now, I feel like I have this new resurgence of people who are like, “Hey, I want to join the choir again.” And so, I’ve had three calls in the last month of just parents who say, “This money should be my money.” Meaning their public per-pupil spending money should be my own money. “I should be able to make decisions. By the way, I didn’t know what that dollar amount was until the pandemic. And now that I know, I really want to control my own money.”

I’ve had parents call me and say, “Hey, I hear the problem is our state’s funding formula. How do I change it?” And I’m like, “Okay, well, good luck to you, changing your state funding formula.” And I’ve had other parents who have just said, “Look, I’ve learned that virtual school is good for my kid. Am I allowed to continue this? I like it. What can I do?” So yeah, lots of parents who now are realizing, “Hey, I should be able to direct these dollars in this funding.” And it turns out, I’ve learned a lot about my student as a learner and I want to help direct the way that that happens. So, lots of new folks to our movement.

We almost have to go back to another phrase, which is called teaching to the middle when we do our trainings. Sometimes we’ve got folks coming in brand, brand new, which is the parents that I’ve been talking to lately, and then we have other folks who are really skilled and trained up and know how to protect school choice programs. So, when we do these trainings back in person, we’re going to kind of have to be right there in the middle, so we’re hitting both needs for the sets of parent activists we have out there in the states.

Mike McShane: Well, it’s great that you bring that up because we have been asking this question about education savings accounts, right? So, for anybody who is even cursorily following politics, and state legislatures, school choice is having a heck of a year and specifically, education savings accounts. We are seeing new programs passed in West Virginia, in Florida, in Kentucky, in Missouri, we’re seeing expansions of tax-credit and voucher programs across the country. So, it sounds exactly in line with what you’re saying, Keri, that families are calling for this, politicians are responding. And so, John, we’re looking at these numbers for popularity of education savings accounts. So, when we pull out all adults or whether we look at school parents, the favorable to unfavorable or the strongly support to oppose, for all adults, 35% somewhat support education savings accounts while 29% strongly support.

And if you go to the two opposition ones, somewhat opposes only 8% and strongly oppose is only 5%. So, for those of you that will be looking at these slides on our website, you just see these two blue lines on the top, two red lines on the bottom where there’s a big spread between the two, and school parents, it’s even more pronounced. 39% somewhat support, 39% strongly support, only 7% and 2% somewhat in strongly oppose. So, when you look at this, it sounds like all of these legislatures are just passing things that are wildly popular. Do you expect this to push more of this to happen? How do you see all this interplay happening?

John Kristof: Yeah. The word is spreading fast on ESA. Is it something that we’ve done enough research on to know people are familiar with ESAs and as we see school choice in general, has been very popular this year, and as Keri mentioned, I think the pandemic has opened a lot of people’s eyes to how much innovation is possible. They know of the school choice legislation that we’ve seen, ESAs have been a big part of it. So, Indiana and West Virginia have brand new ESA programs this year. Kentucky and Missouri have a tax credit funded ESA, which is somewhat of a new development in at school choice legislation because before, it’s been tax credit funded vouchers. And Florida expanded its ESA.

It’s difficult to overstate how popular these programs are. So, this isn’t really surprising. You just read off the numbers for between all adults and parents, how popular ESAs is are. It’s also fascinating just when you break this down by demographic, oftentimes politically speaking, you’ll see at least partisan speaking, you’ll often see Republicans rating school choice programs higher than Democrats, but in ESAs, we actually fairly consistently see Democrats even higher than Republicans as far as positivity toward ESAs and that’s not a shot at Republicans. Republicans still support ESAs at a rate of 67%. That’s still very high and very good. It’s just that Democrats are also 70%.

In March, we had a survey of teachers and teachers also overwhelmingly supported ESAs. When you explain the ESA concept to people, it makes a lot of sense to people. It makes sense to teachers, it makes sense to parents. This idea of, “Let me be in control of where to send the dollars for my kid’s education.” And it’s not this lump sum or nothing to this school or that school. It is, “Hey, there are these services here that work really well for my kid.” Or, “There’s tutoring over here that’s going to work really well for my kid.” Or, “There is test prep here that’s going to help their standardized test scores or college entrance exams.” Wherever your kids are at, you have the power to see the resources that will benefit your kids in this particular year and go get them. And parents find that incredibly encouraging.

Everyone finds that really empowering. It’s not a surprise that we’ve seen so many new ESAs this year, and I think when school choice legislation gets picked up next year as well, you’re going to hear more about the ESAs and it’s going to take a bigger and bigger share of new school choice ideas because it really maximizes the idea of flexibility and innovation.

Mike McShane: Yeah. So, in this last kind of act of the podcast here today, I want to point out what this money might get spent on in the future, right? So, we look towards next school year, the school years after that, as more people are empowered with more choice, we’ve been asking questions about a variety of what we might call alternative educational options, right? So, we ask questions about homeschooling favorability. We’ve talked about a kind of hybrid schooling model where children go to school for some portion of the week in a traditional school building and stay home for part of it. We’ve talked about so-called pandemic pods, which are another way of talking about micro-schools, so small potentially home-based store or based in some other space, but sort of small schools that families are putting together.

And one of the things that I have found fascinating in the data that came out this month is that even though more and more kids are going back to school, even though more and more parents are comfortable with their kids going back to school, all of these things are more popular. I would have expected things like homeschooling favorability to have gone down, as people go back to school, hybrid schooling going down as people go back to school, pandemic pods going down, but and we look at our homeschooling numbers, they’re up seven points, so those who are more favorable to homeschooling as a result of the pandemic SLS, that’s up seven points in the last month.

When we talk about hybrid homeschooling, depending on how you look at it, it’s up anywhere between five-ish points of people who are more likely to say that they would like some kind of model where their kids go to school part-time. Pods have gone up on average across the different groups of four points. So John, how do you make sense of all of that? We do have… And we’ve broken down some of the pod stuff from various demographic groups, I’ll be the first to say, this is not the direction that I thought it was going to go in. I would have expected to see these numbers taper off. What am I missing? What do you see there?

John Kristof: It’s a good question. I feel like it’s best to address these questions separately, or at least one after the other. In my mind, homeschooling has been very interesting to discuss this year. I really enjoy seeing the trend of summer hits and homeschooling was very popular, like a much more popular idea than it was before the pandemic started. And then about October, November hits, and along with a lot of other indicators that we had at the time that looked like parents were getting a little bit tired. And so homeschooling tapered off as far as total favorability a little bit, but it climbed back since. And so I think we’ve stabilized that overall a little more popular than homeschooling was at the beginning of the pandemic. And I think that is just a signal of a lot of parents were forced to try it to some degree. Not all of them necessarily saw it as a long-term solution, but some of them did.

And switching to homeschooling is a radical change that most families probably wouldn’t do unless they were kind of externally forced to do so, but that happened. And I think some parents said, “I can see benefits of this.” I have loved ones who are teachers, and they’ve told me that a surprising number of kids that were struggling before schools re-closed in the fall are actually doing much better when they came back because they were able to connect with their parents or guardians and did a lot better. That wasn’t the case with all of the students, but with a surprising number of the students, according to the loved ones that I’ve talked to. And so to me, that explains a little bit of uptick in favorability toward homeschooling, because I think a lot more people saw it as possible than maybe even they expected.

And as far as hybrid homeschooling goes, I tend to think of this in a similar way to how… I think some people are just approaching to what does the work-week look like now? Just broadly. Workplaces across the country are kind of revisiting maybe what needs to happen in person at the workplace. Perhaps most famously, most recently Google announced that they were going to go to a hybrid format, and boy, if there was a company that ever tried to incentivize employees to come in person, it might’ve been Google and even they’ve switched. So to me, that’s a signal of a nationwide conversation happening about what needs to happen in person. And we clearly all value in-person connections. There’s definite benefits to that. We had a survey of teens and teens clearly see benefit of interacting with their peers in person, and yet they still indicate a preference for some kind of flexibility and not doing in-person necessarily five days a week.

So, I think there’s just a lot of preference that people have toward flexibility, where the eyes are opened to… It’s forced them to question what needs to happen where? And maybe the answer for a lot of people is a little bit different than maybe they thought it was before the pandemic started. It doesn’t need to be completely one way or another. It doesn’t need to be completely in-person or completely at home, whether it’s work or school, but maybe some hybrid of both.

So, maybe as the national conversation develops and maybe as more workplaces revisit what needs to happen in person or not, maybe more schools will revisit the same, and something that was a West Coast idea may spread a little bit further. The idea of… I learned this recently. I’m a Midwesterner. I’ve learned apparently some West Coast schools have had 48 school weeks. And to me, it’s like, “Okay, this isn’t a brand new idea,” to my little Midwestern brain, it was, but maybe it’s not a brand new idea, but again, some kind of external shock. It forced people to question what’s really important? So I think it’s cool, we’re able to track through the numbers.

Mike McShane: For sure. And, Keri, it’s interesting. So this month, Morning Consult worked with us. They pulled out, not only do we pull the folks, but we give some chances for kind of open-ended responses. And specifically, we were talking about pandemic pods in this, so we asked families, “Why are you participating in a pod? What are you looking for to join one?” Or, if you aren’t participating, we kind of gave people a chance to explain it. And we saw some really interesting answers, right?

So, some of the people that’re participating, one answer that came out was like, “To give my child additional learning opportunities and social opportunities.” Someone who was looking for a pod said, “I want to make sure that my son isn’t falling behind,” Seemed very reasonable. But then some folks who said that they weren’t participating, one person said, “Look, my kids are doing great academically. So, I don’t think they need to be in a pod.” And some other people say, “There’s still dangerous because of COVID, and they’re very costly, so we don’t want to participate in them.” But whether talking about pods specifically, or any of this sort of alternative model stuff, the parents that you talk to, the folks that you engage with, what are you kind of hearing on the ground about these new opportunities that might be available to them?

Keri Hunter: Yeah, a couple of things. I think what John hit on was right. I know a lot of folks were scared to select homeschooling as an option, but if their kids weren’t in traditional school when things shut down, they got to see what the curriculum was like. They got to look at the pace of the day-to-day schedule. And I think it’s really opened a lot of people’s minds to see, “Hey, maybe I can do this.” I’ve heard from a couple of folks who need to start their own pods, and they want to do it even with a different twist. They want to do some form of a virtual school and then supplement whatever it is, whether they want their kids to do more arts or learn a different language. So, they will still enroll in some kind of a virtual school or academy, have a small pod, pay for a teacher for this one specific activity. So, a little bit of a hybrid blended podding method that I’ve heard a lot of folks interested in.

I’ve also seen school districts changing too. Where I live, our school district said, “Hey, we are done with virtual. It won’t be an option in the fall.” But the school district right next door said, “Hey, we’ve heard from a lot of you. You like it. So guess what? We are starting the Greenfield Virtual Academy.” So, the public school is going to keep with virtual, because they see that parents liked it and that they could have some form of enrollment going forward. And that’s open to anybody in the state. So, really, we talk about competition a lot. “Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them. Start your own virtual academy in the public school system, and get folks to jump on board if they’d like.” I think a lot of people have tried things and their hearts and minds and their brains are open to it.

Mike McShane: Yes. Well, look, I think that’s about all we have time for today. As usual, we could continue talking about this forever. We also had some really interesting questions just as a bit of a teaser here for folks to check out the website, edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. We have some really interesting stuff about next school year and what parents are looking for, whether that’s tutoring or individualized learning plan, high-speed internet, laptops, tablets, additional summer school, fascinating numbers based on what parents wanted, but you know what? I’m going to leave that to you, our dear listeners to find yourselves and would be fascinated to hear what you all have to think about this.

But as usual, John, thank you so much. Great job. Age has not dulled your wit one bit. And Keri, thanks so much for joining. This is your first time on the tracker podcast, but I certainly hope it will not be your last. Take care, everybody. And I look forward to talking to you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.