Ep. 256: Monthly Tracker Results – May 2021

June 22, 2021

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

Mike McShane: Well, hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, with another monthly installment of our tracker podcast. I am pleased to be joined today by my colleagues John Kristof, and Jen Wagner, and we have a lot to discuss. John and Jen, I don’t know if you have experienced sort of the same thing that I have, I was trying to find this quote that sort of sums up the last month, and right before we got on here, I found it, and I realized it was said by Lenin. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best thing to lead the podcast with, but I’m leaning in, because even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and again. He’s famous for saying, well, he’s famous for a lot of horrible things, but he is known for this particular quote where he said, “There are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen.”

And I think with respect to the coronavirus, along things, it almost feels like the last few weeks since we’ve chatted, so much has happened. I mean, at that time, there was so much ambiguity about the fall, about the summer, and I don’t know if you’re like me, but some other organization, some nonprofits that I’m involved with, and volunteered with, or on the board of whatever, the conversations we were having even a month ago like, “Oh, will our October fundraiser go on?” Now it’s like, “Okay, we’re booking hotels for October or September, November. This is going in person. We’re going to have a guest speaker come in.” Even we here at EdChoice, we’re thinking about events and planning, a lot of the sort of trigger is being pulled on events. I think as people think about schooling in the fall, this sort of ambiguity of will schools reopen in the fall, seems to be kind of decided at this point, that kids are going back, and they’re going back in person. And so, it was a really interesting time.

So again, for those that are unfamiliar, we, in partnership with Morning Consult Poll, a nationally representative sample of Americans every month, the polling that we’re going to be talking about today was in the field from May 7th to May 20th, 2021. And it’s funny, because even with all of this change recently, one of the numbers that stood out to me, and Jen, I might have you start on this, was the classic kind of polling right track, wrong track question that we ask. So particularly with school parents, but this was mirrored in our general population.

We asked this question, “Do you feel things in K-12 education are generally going in the right direction, or do you feel they’ve gotten off to the wrong track?” And on almost any of these questions where we ask about your local school district, your state, or your nation, the answers in May of ’21 were almost identical to those in March of 2020. So even though so much has happened in the last year, and if you can see on the wonderful slide deck that we have available on our website, you’ve seen ups and downs and actually, a lot of downs, but then this sort of slow uptick. Is this kind of one of those “LOL, nothing matters?” How do you look at this, where we’re basically right back where we started after this really cataclysmic, life-changing event?

Jen Wagner: I mean, I don’t have a Lenin quote to lead in with, but I can say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? If you look at this slide, which tracks positive, negative sentiment about education at different levels from March of last year through May of this year, yeah, we’re right back where we started. And I think to me, and we can get more into this as we kind of dig into the details of what parents are looking for, we’ve been talking for months, right? This has been a life-changing pandemic. Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of economic damage, a lot of learning loss, a lot of loss of life, and we’ve been talking for months about getting to that point where the world is healing, things are reopening, and what does that mean for K-12 education?

I think if we look specifically at these numbers, okay, things went way down in the winter months when everybody was stuck indoors, getting sick, there was no real vaccine timeline on the horizon. And to your point, Mike, everything is just really moving quickly right now. Cruise ships are sailing, people are booking flights, schools are having to make decisions on whether or not to keep online learning, versus getting everyone back in the classroom. So to me, this is okay, things are back to quote, unquote, normal, but are they, and what do we do now that we can start having that conversation we’ve been talking about for months?

Mike McShane: Yeah. John, it’s interesting, because we’ve been asking this question, again, based on what you have seen, read, or heard about the coronavirus outbreak so far, “How comfortable are you with your children returning to school?” And we have this again, Morning Console put together this wonderful graphic, it kind of looks like a wave, where you can track the percentage of people who said that they’re comfortable over this time period. Now, interestingly, in May, the breakdown was about 65% of parents say that they are comfortable, so that’s very comfortable, plus somewhat comfortable, and 30% in total are uncomfortable.

But one of the things I thought was interesting, was that those numbers are only one point different. So the total comfortable is just up one point from April, total uncomfortable is down one point, even though sort of as we’ve pointed out, these changes in vaccines, and cruise ships are sailing, all these things are happening. I wonder, do you think this is just the sort of equilibrium that we’ve reached, that there’s going to be a kind of third or so of people, or three in 10 of people, who are just worried about the coronavirus, and even when things happen outside in the world, there’s just this kind of baseline level of folks that are concerned, and this is the status quo we should expect going into the fall? Do we think those numbers are going to keep going down? What do you see when you see those numbers?

John Kristof: It is interesting, because I think it was just last month, we were joking that like, “Man, at this rate, 100% of people are going to be comfortable before the end of the year,” and then of course, in this month, the growth comes to a crashing halt at just a percentage point or two growth from one month to the next. It is interesting, because cases continue to go down. I just checked today, the numbers are shockingly low. The number of new confirmed cases on a daily basis are similar to what they were like when the coronavirus was at its earliest stages, and we had no idea what kind of year we were going to be having, and yet, the numbers of comfort with school are not continuing to grow.

It is a little strange. It does make me think that there is just some level of concern that people are going to have for an extended period of time. I think there are a couple of things that could happen over the summer that could increase comfort by at least a little bit, by the time school rolls around. One is some evidence that numbers do not increase, and that there are not a lot of outbreaks among kids’ camps and things like that, or maybe just across the country generally, as people open up back to normal. So basically, we don’t see another big spike. Maybe there are some people who are still uncomfortable with in-person education, because they are assuming that because the kids are not vaccinated yet, because that’s not approved, that it’s just a matter of time before we see more outbreaks again. If that does not happen over the summer, despite a lot of kids’ things occurring normally across the country, maybe that would be evidence for some people that school too can go back to normal.

And then another thing perhaps too obviously, is whether we see an emergency authorization for a vaccine for children by the fall. I saw a report today that apparently the deal to do a trial of Pfizer for kids age five through 11 has been solidified, so that’s going to happen, and supposedly there is a possibility for an emergency authorization for a kid’s Pfizer vaccine to be done in September. And so, if people see that on the horizon, maybe that would increase their comfort with in-person education, maybe not by fall, but maybe pretty early into fall. Those are the two things that I can think of, is there are some people I think, who just need wait and see, and then some people might… The coronavirus came out of nowhere, so who knows what else could come out of nowhere? Who knows when it could return, and things like that.

Mike McShane: I think that’s a very good point, and it’ll be interesting to see as we go into the fall. I mean, clearly the majority of folks right now are comfortable, right? But it is important to know that there is this sizable minority, and I think in some ways, there’s almost the visual representation, like if you’re out and about now, you see the folks that are kind of walking down the street by themselves with masks on and you’re like, “Look, they’re just still worried about the coronavirus.”

And I’m generally a very live and let live person, I realize that there are some people, particularly who like to write screeds on the internet, who just get incensed when they see people like this, and I’m just like, “I don’t know, somebody’s scared of the coronavirus, and they want to wear a mask. I don’t think they’re really hurting anybody, so it doesn’t really bother me,” but we don’t need to wade into that issue necessarily. Suffice to say that I think that there are folks that are going to be still very concerned about the coronavirus that are out there, and I think we can expect some flash points, depending on how folks are concentrated in various school districts and others, as they try to navigate reopening, where you have a majority of people that want something, but a sizable minority who might not.

And I think that leads into, we’ve been asking this question about offering multiple approaches during the coronavirus. So do we think that schools should offer one approach, or multiple learning options? So this is generally if we’re thinking an in-person option, a remote option, a hybrid option, any of those things that are out there, and there’s been some talk in the news recently of some school districts saying, “Look, we’re going to keep a remote option going forward,” and others saying, “Nope, we’re not doing remote. Everybody’s coming back in person. We think it’s a waste of resources,” or “We think teachers can’t teach it well,” or for any number of reasons that they’ve had.

And so, we asked the question in May, and 67% of school parents want to see multiple learning options, but 23% said, no, they just want one approach to be offered. So Jen, how do you see that sort of playing out going forward? Do you think that 23% is going to go up? Do we think more and more folks are going to say, “Don’t even bother, don’t waste the resources. We’d rather have that money in my kid’s classroom that they’re in in person,” or do we expect something different?

Jen Wagner: Yeah, and the answer is, I don’t know, because I think-

Mike McShane: Come on, this is a place for baseless speculation. It’s safe, it’s safe for this. We’ve never held any of each other accountable for any of our predictions.

Jen Wagner: Well, that’s a fair point, in which case, I’ll just pontificate.

Mike McShane: There we go!

Jen Wagner: No, I think this is really the first month, and it’s reflected in the numbers we just talked about and some of the ones we’re yet to get to, where the hypothetical meets reality, and I think it’s really interesting to look at these numbers and again, you’ve got folks who are more comfortable sending their kids back to school, 65% thereabout, but you still got 67% that are like, “Oh, but I want different options.” And to me, as we continue to poll over the coming months, and it’s also important, let’s remember it’s June, it’s summer. In almost every place in America, school is out. So, you’ve got parents, and I count myself in this category, who are just like, “Whew, thank heavens we made it.” Right? “We made it through, and I’m not really even necessarily thinking about next school year, because right now, I’m thinking about going to Cedar Point next week, or going to Hawaii in a few weeks.”

And it’ll be interesting to see how, again, this is more hypothetical, you want multiple learning options, great. Will parents though follow through on this, and demand or politely request that their school districts actually do what they want them to do? Or will that 23% grow, not because people only want the one option, but because of inertia, because their school is going to decide, honestly, without a lot of input, most likely over the summer, “This is what you get, and don’t throw a fit” And then as that starts to happen, as folks start to realize what their options are, or more importantly, aren’t, in the fall, will we see parents making different choices that align with what they want in their head, to make sure that they get what they want in their head in reality for their kids?

And I think, not to spoil things to come in the podcast, but we’ve seen in our research over the last year that there are a lot of people who want a mix, not just of learning options, but of learning locations. So I will not spoil things to come, but I don’t see that number changing. So the question is, what will parents do, what will families do as their options are either in line with what they expected, or are not in line with what they want, and then they have a choice to make?

Mike McShane: Well, thank you for that perfect pass. I’m now going to lob it to John to slam into the bucket here, because talking about these options in May, we’ve been asking this question about homeschooling. Obviously, “Have your opinions on homeschooling changed as a result of the pandemic?”, ticked up during May, and asking this question about hybrid homeschooling, again, and I have to continue to sort of express my surprise of this. I did not expect to see this happening, but so, we asked this question about, “After the pandemic, to what extent would you prefer homeschooling to be scheduled each week with some time at home and some in school?” The options that we give for a mix of home and school continued to grow in popularity. So three days at home is up five percentage points among school parents today, and perhaps interestingly, when we say no, the option that we give for completely outside the home, so no, you don’t want any homeschooling at all, it’s down to 32%, it dropped seven points since April, and the completely at home stayed the same. So those numbers were redistributed throughout some combination of home and school.

So John, how do you make sense of that? I mean, it seems to me like this hybrid option, and even traditional homeschooling, all of those continue to be really favorable options for families.

John Kristof: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. That’s just a mind-boggling number to me, that only 32%, less than one in three people’s ideal learning setup involves five days a week outside of the home, is just mind-blowing every time I read that and say that. And in my mind, this is an element of the new normal, right? We talked about for a long time, we asked questions about how COVID would just force us to reframe how we approach the world and what kinds of new setups that we were forced to adopt during COVID, what would stick around. And I think again, as case numbers drop, as a lot of other areas of our lives go back to normal, a lot of social activities, a lot of travel is opening up as normal, but these preferences for hybrid homeschooling, for some learning to take place in the home is not just staying the same, but continuing to strengthen, I think is pretty incredible, and the fact that it’s been happening for such a long time tells me that it’s not going away, and these preferences are not going to change very quickly, regardless of what districts choose to do.

I think a lot of parents have just had a taste of what it looks like having their kids at home, and maybe figured out some ways to make things work, maybe had opportunities to learn things about their kid’s learning styles and motivation, and saw new possibilities for their kid, and maybe their work possibilities have changed due to COVID as well. We know that extended working from home has been something that a lot of workplaces have been talking about. So I think this is just an element of the new normal.

Now, whether districts and schools will surface these desires, of course, as Jen talked about, is another question entirely, so maybe years down the road, if districts do not adapt. And in some places, maybe parents will kind of go back to some level of inertia where, “Okay, completely outside the home is fine,” but I think there is opportunity for a lot of private school, charter schools out there, or districts in open enrollment areas. I think there are opportunities for schools to figure out a way to service these desires, to say, “Hey, we are the people who are going to figure out how to best do this hybrid approach. We’re going to find the teachers who excel in online learning, and find teachers who do well in the classroom, and allow parents to figure out a way to utilize both of them.” And based on the results we’ve been getting for a very long time, that is a very good sales pitch to a lot of families. I think schools could learn a lot from these questions that we’ve been asking over the last several months.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. Yeah, and look, one of the big topics that continues come up in the education world is the role of tutoring, right? Because we see terrible fears that we have of students that fell behind during the pandemic, but also I think for lots of reasons, because students were in many of these alternative environments, and a lot of them maybe were accelerated during this time period. I think we’re not going to know for a while exactly how it broke down, who was helped, who was harmed, and how that all shakes out.

But it seems to me one, at least intuitive solution to this is to try, and I don’t know if personalized is the best word for it, but to try and sort of decrease or focus interventions on individual students. So tutoring is obviously an idea for this, there’s lots of federal money that’s being spent. So tutoring, I think, to the best of my knowledge, if I think back to graduate school, has a pretty strong evidence base for it. The knock against it always is that it’s very labor-intensive, and it’s very expensive, right? Because you have to focus on individual kids, as opposed to classrooms of 15, 20, or 25.

Well, now we’ve got a bunch of federal money to be spent, so tutoring seems to be a reasonable choice, and so, we’ve asked some questions about tutoring. So even now we asked, “Is your child getting tutored outside of regular school hours?” So between folks saying, “Yes, they are currently being tutored,” “No, but I’m actively looking for a tutor,” or “No, but I will be looking soon for a tutor,” you get almost half of school parents. 49% either currently have a tutor, or they are looking for a tutor. So by the way, if anybody’s interested in starting a tutoring business, we got a nice market out there for you.

And I think also, parents are looking for some other things, when we look at things like we ask a whole scope of questions of, “How helpful do you think each of the following interventions will be?” We give them a menu of things, but tutoring’s at the top of that list too. Something like, I think 61% of school parents, 62% of all adults say that tutoring would be an effective way to do it. So Jen, how do you look at this tutoring issue? Do you know of any stuff that’s being done already around tutoring? Do you see that sort of shaping the way schools kind of respond in the short and medium term to the coronavirus?

Jen Wagner: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know anything specific other than to point out that a few months ago, our own Paul DiPerna, the head of our research department, wrote a great piece on starting a national tutoring corps. I know others have echoed the need for that, but I think what that really does underscore is what you just hit on, Mike, which is that individualized approach to learning, and we see that in this breakdown. So again, we did ask a battery of questions of like, “Here’s a bunch of things that you might think are helpful. Which are the most helpful?” Tutoring came out really, really high among school parents, 61%, individualized learning plans at 65%, access to high-speed internet, which obviously has become a big issue over the last 15 months.

Additional counseling or mental health support, I know we didn’t have time to get to this today, but as you look across the breakdown of how parents think things have gone during the pandemic, the number of parents who think academically their kids have done okay, is much, much higher than the percentage that think their kids have done okay socially or emotionally, which is probably a topic for an entirely separate podcast.

But I think what’s really interesting about this particular breakdown and asking people what they care about, is also what they don’t want. And so we asked people, “Hey, would you want to have additional school days on the weekend, or longer classroom hours, or summer school?” And pretty much across the board, they were like, “No. No, thank you. I don’t want any more of that thing. I want it to be focused on my child. I want these interventions,” whether it’s tutoring, or pods, or whatever it might be, to be very driven by an individual’s family needs. And I think, again, that’s reflected in our support that we see for school choice policies, which I know we’re going to get into a little bit here next, but individualized education, I think is the thing that people can take away from the last 15 months, and I think that’s where families are going to put their focus in the coming months as we head into the 21-22 school year.

Mike McShane: Yeah, absolutely, and I think as you foreshadowed, one of the things that could help provide some of these are education savings accounts, and as we’ve mentioned on this podcast, and if anyone is even a casual consumer of EdChoice content, you will know that this spring has been absolutely boomtown for state legislatures either passing or expanding education savings accounts programs. One of the things that I worry about whenever there’s this big burst of enthusiasm, is you might encounter some kind of buyer’s remorse, right? Where sure, there’s a big wave and deals are cut, and legislatures and bills get signed, and everybody’s happy, but then when the actual work starts of, “Oh my goodness, this program’s actually going to exist and we actually have to do stuff now,” folks might say, “Oh man, maybe we moved too fast. Maybe we did too much. Maybe we don’t know what we have.”

Well, we’ve been asking this question about support for education savings accounts, so now that multiple states have done this, they’ve been in the news everywhere. In May, strong support for ESAs actually increased by four points, the numbers that we see of somewhat opposed go down. So the way it looks, 33% of respondents strongly support ESAs, 36%, somewhat support, only 6% somewhat oppose, and 4% strongly oppose. And actually, Morning Consult broke down a lot of the individual demographic groups that we look at, and I mean, you can sort of pick your poison here of what you’re most interested in, but I mean, just versus April, some numbers that stand out to me, Democrats up seven points, those in the Northeast, up 12 points, Hispanic respondents up 10 points, Gen Z, up 17 points. And so, I can’t think of a better segue to John’s thoughts than his generation being up 17 points. So as the resident Gen Zer on the podcast, what do you see in these numbers?

John Kristof: ESA TikToks abounding, for sure. No.

Mike McShane: There we go!

John Kristof: That’s what we do. Now, ESAs are, I mean, as you mentioned, they’re growing a lot, they always rate super highly in our polling, because when you just describe it to people, “Hey, we’ll put money in an account that you can spend on any variety of educational expenses,” it makes sense to people, and it makes sense to people across political ideologies, and backgrounds, and demographics. It makes sense to people. And I think it’s actually interesting following up the tutoring and learning loss conversation with this, because one other thing that I did want to mention about tutoring, I’m going to cycle back to this real quick, but while the interest in tutoring is very high, and of all the different interventions that parents are interested in, something like tutoring or individualized education is really popular, parents want that, but the number of parents were saying in our survey that their child is being tutored, is only up three percentage points more than it was in February.

So despite this greater need for tutoring, and dealing with learning loss, and trying to help kids over the summer, parents recognize that schools recognize that at least in our polling, not a lot more kids are taking advantage of that. When you combine that with some of the staffing issues that I know some schools are having, there’s a lot of money being offered to teachers to do tutoring and to do summer school, that a lot of teachers are saying, “My mental health is more important,” and things like that. And the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown are finding that schools are really not spending any more money than they legally have to creating more new programs to help kids with learning loss and things like that, using money instead on teacher bonuses, and paying off debt, and things like that.

If you have something like an ESA where you are giving, like when you have this influx of money, if you tell parents, “Hey, you can use this on a variety of educational expenses,” parents can go find their own tutors. Maybe they have a family friend, and they can compensate that person’s time to help tutor the kid to catch up to get to grade level by the time fall comes around, because their school didn’t have enough staffing to help their kid out, or whatever it is, that’s just an example here.

Offering parents the ability to pay for the specific kind of service that their kid needs, and taking that outside of what their school is or is not able to provide, whether it comes to staffing, or resources and things like that, makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. And I think it’s really exciting that we’ve seen as much growth in ESA legislation, and ESA programs, and ESA future enrollment through bill expansions. I think it’s really exciting because all the disruption we’ve seen this year, I think has just really opened people’s eyes to how they can take control of their kid’s education, and what they would be able to do that maybe one specific school in their area could not.

Mike McShane: Well, I’m really glad you ended on that note, John, because as you started there, I was about to say, that’s some of that Gen Z nihilism that y’all are so well known for, but you turned it out there with some optimism, which this Millennial certainly appreciates. Well, look, we could talk about this all day and I would actually thoroughly enjoy doing that, as opposed to the whole rake of meetings that I think I have to do back to back for the next like four hours, but we’re going to have to leave it there. John, Jen, thank you so much. As always, your insights were wonderful.

Everyone who’s listening, please, we have posted the entire slide deck that gives all of this information and much more. We have all of the cross-tabs, we have the questionnaire, everything that you’re interested in seeing, all posted up on our website. And I can say actually, our new website, if you all have not gone to www.edchoice.org yet, shame on you, rectify that immediately. As soon as this podcast ends, open it up, it looks great, it’s user-friendly, it’s wonderful. Well, thanks so much for being with us today, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.