Ep. 265: Monthly Tracker Results – July 2021

August 31, 2021

In this episode, we share key takeaways from our July 2021 wave of polling as reported on our EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and we are on the podcast today to talk about the July iteration of our monthly tracker survey. It’s part of our ongoing series with Morning Consult, where we poll a nationally representative sample of Americans every month about their opinions on a variety of education issues, and to break down those opinions, I am joined today by my colleagues, John Kristof, Jen Wagner, and Drew Catt.

This poll was in the field from July 14th to July 20th. A time when the Delta variant was raging, folks were starting to think about getting back to school, so it’s a really interesting time to talk about opinions about education. One of the first ones, we’ve been asking this question, how disruptive has the Coronavirus been on your life? And we’ve asked all adults, we’ve asked parents this, and one of the things, Jen, that kind of surprised me, was this month, it appears that even with Coronavirus case numbers going up the percentages of people who said that it’s very disruptive to their life is going down. What do you think is going on there?

Jen Wagner: Yeah, Mike, I was very struck by that as well, because obviously we see states here that are approaching critical mass in terms of lack of ICU beds. We’ve got a lot of places where you’ve got leadership that’s questioning how to open schools, schools going back remote because they’re seeing a sudden influx of hundreds, if not thousands, of cases, and yet overall, people are like, “Yeah, this isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not really bothering me.” It’s pretty low in terms of, only 20% said that this is really disruptive to their family or household routine, 20% same with their personal routine.

For me, I think what we’re seeing over that trend line though, is we’ve kind of gotten used to living with the Coronavirus. People who are going to go out and live their lives are going to do so, probably for one of two reasons, either that they have been vaccinated and they feel safe doing that or that they haven’t, and they’re like, “Whatever, I’m just going to live my life.” I think that’s probably why we’re seeing this trend line go way, way down from its high point back last March, when you had almost half of respondents saying that COVID-19 was very disruptive to their local communities. I think we’ve just learned to live with it.

John Kristof: And I think that’s pretty true because when you look at case numbers over time and compare it to what the feelings of disruption have been, Morning Consult does a great job illustrating this in our slide deck that you can see online. When you came to November, December, January, when cases just soared through the roof even more, there is a slight increase in the feelings of disruption, and you can see that, but nowhere near the levels that they were in April. I think Jen points out that we kind of learned to live with it, and I would say that we learned to live with it in a sense, a long time ago in that we are used to seeing cases rise and learning to adapt, or at least feeling not very personally threatened at least on a massive level.

It is interesting to see the talk of the Delta variant go up and you see cases from the Delta variant go up and unlike in the winter, when feelings of concern rose slightly, it did dip even more this time, and it makes me think that, is a sense of disruption more tied to government restrictions? Is it more tied to services or activities available to you? If so, does a resurgence in mask mandates in some areas provide more feelings of disruption in the next couple of months or so? That will be interesting to see, but there does seem to be a pretty strong disconnect between threat and feelings of disruption.

Drew Catt Yeah. I’m really interested to see how this may or may not change with the results from the current month. So, John, it’s interesting that you talked about case counts because as a fellow researcher, that’s the kind of stuff that we pay attention to. I find that most people don’t.

And Jen, as you very well know perception is everything. So I wonder how much a perceived disruption is less connected to case counts and more connected to media coverage. I remember not that long ago, I was talking with a friend about COVID, Coronavirus, the Delta variant, and I was like, “Oh yeah, things are really bad in Louisiana and North Florida,” and they were like, “What are you talking about? I haven’t heard anything about that,” and this was somebody that more or less stays on top of what’s happening in the world. They read the news. I wonder how much of it again, is less about the case counts and more about the media coverage and how much people are actually having conversations about this, and maybe it’s less disruptive over what they do or do not do, but how much it is, in some ways consuming multiple aspects of their lives.

Mike McShane: The things we are picking up was for the first time. It wasn’t a huge change, but it was definitely something that we saw in this question that we’ve been asking about how comfortable parents are in sending their kids back to school. We’ve seen a pretty solid trajectory over the last few months of parents getting more comfortable with their kids going back to school, and this was the first time where we actually saw a decrease. The total percentage of people who said they were comfortable, so that’s combining somewhat and very comfortable, dropped two points, and those uncomfortable, so that was very or somewhat, increased four points since, I guess it’s four points up for May and two points down from June on those two sides. Now, granted, those comfortable are still three quarters. So, 72% of respondents are comfortable while only 26 are not.

But it is interesting to see that there was at least a bit of a wiggle in there, a bit of a waiver where we’d seen a pretty solid trajectory change, and maybe, Drew, that would seem to lend some credence to the point that you just made, which is folks that are more intensely watching this, their opinion might be more sensitive as opposed to people who are just going on living their lives, but I don’t know, Jen, it’s back to school time for the Wagner household. As you talk to other parents, as you look at all of this, what’s the parent vibe right now?

Jen Wagner: Yeah, so I think in order to answer that question, I have to skip ahead one slide in the deck that you always are so great about preparing for us to talk through. I think when you look at the numbers of percentages of parents who are comfortable with their kids returning to school right now, you definitely see a big gap between parents who have kids who are vaccinated, which is 85% comfortable, and then you’ve got the parents of kids who do not have the vaccine for whatever reason, which is down at 70%. Now, again, worth reiterating it, these are still really high numbers. People overall seem pretty comfortable, but I can speak to this as a parent.

I have two kids. One is vaccinated because she is 13. One is not because he is nine and he is not able to get the vaccine. However, he had COVID last year and the sweet little thing gave it to both of us, so that’s great, too, but if he had not already had COVID and had probably some antibodies built up, I would be pretty nervous, not because he is likely to get sick. We’ve all read the stories of most children, young children, are pretty resilient. They don’t come down with serious symptoms, but because, especially the Delta variant, is extraordinarily contagious. Two to three times more likely to spread from one person to another than the original COVID, the OG COVID if you will. And so for me, having some immunocompromised people in my family, I would worry that he would come back and be the mangy little, super spreader that he was last year, but even worse than before. I think you definitely see that gap between parents who have their kids able to be vaccinated and parents who have not yet been able to do that.

Mike McShane: Yeah. I’m glad that you brought that up. Another question that we asked… This may be the first month where we did a breakdown like this. Underneath that question of how comfortable you are, we asked, “Well, are you vaccinated? Are your children vaccinated?” And yes, to reiterate those numbers. For vaccinated parents, 79% are comfortable and parents with vaccinated children, it is 85%, while unvaccinated parents, it is 66% and parents with unvaccinated children, it is 70%. So do we think these numbers are going to change as vaccination rates go up? Do we think this is roughly baked in? John? Drew? What do you think?

Drew Catt: Yeah, I think there are really two things that we’re going to see moving forward, a kind of bifurcation of parts, especially within the unvaccinated pool. From my perception, the pool of unvaccinated parents are one, those with a medical condition that makes it so their doctor either does or does not recommend them to take a vaccine, and those that just don’t want to take it for their own personal or religious reasons, and I think it’s important to point out that this poll was conducted mid-July. This was well before any of us saw the screaming, shouting threats that were happening at school board meetings all across the nation. There were pickets and protests for anti-masking.

I think there is going to be the anti-mask group of parents that are going to be uncomfortable sending their kids to school because they are uncomfortable with their child wearing a mask, and there’s going to be the set of parents that are uncomfortable with sending their kids to school because they’re worried that their kid is, as Jen said, going to potentially contract and spread COVID. It’s really going to be fascinating to see how the percentages do or do not change, especially with the data that’s probably being wrapped up, being collected in the field in either the last couple of days or the next few days, because I really do think that it’s going to be that separation of why people are unvaccinated and why they are uncomfortable, whether it’s due to the spread of COVID or due to schools mandating masks, or maybe a different reason. It would be interesting to unpeel that.

John Kristof: For sure, and one response that some school districts are having to this sort of diverse set of people that they’re working with, ideologically diverse, just across the dimensions of the Coronavirus itself is looking at trying to provide multiple learning options. We’ve been asking this question this whole time, but Morning Consult, I think really helpfully broke down this month, was that we asked this question of, should schools only offer one approach to educating K-12 students in the fall or provide multiple approaches? 66% of respondents say that they want multiple approaches, only 22% want one approach, and if you break down those who want multiple learning options, the top numbers of people saying that. Middle income folks, which we define as people making between 35 and $75,000 in household income, black respondents, Democrats, and Hispanic respondents, they’re more likely to want to have those multiple learning options.

Mike McShane: It seems to me, John Kristof, that this is like a no brainer for districts. There’s so many online providers and people that are out there. As Drew mentioned, there’s been all these contentious hearings about masks and all this other stuff that’s happening, but it seems to me like, hey, districts just offer an online thing. So, if anybody’s got problems and they don’t want to do it, just say, “Cool, here’s what we’re offering in person. If you don’t like that, here’s what’s online. Choose whichever one you want.” Should I be John Lennon’s “Imagine” or something? Am I missing something here of what seems to me, a relatively straightforward solution to deescalate the situation?

John Kristof: Well, certainly a lot of people agree with you in that assessment with two thirds of people saying that there should be multiple learning options-

Mike McShane: I am nothing if not the man of the people, so thank you for highlighting that.

John Kristof: There you go. It does seem like a no brainer, I think, from the parent’s perspective and probably from a lot of kids’ perspectives, and I think as uncertainty increases about what Coronavirus is going to look like in the classroom this year, and as we’re recording this, schools have gotten started or a lot of schools have gotten started in the fall, and I know one school that’s already shut down over a COVID concern. So, we’ll see. I wouldn’t be surprised if demand for multiple options increases or whether we see some districts who have committed to not providing multiple learning options for this fall regret not making that investment early on and having to make a transition yet again, that they maybe didn’t prepare for, similar to last year and a couple springs ago.

I know from the district’s perspective or many districts perspective, there’s a difficulty in getting teachers on board from a collective perspective and maybe more specifically recruiting teachers in order to be willing to teach online, and when you look at our teacher surveys, which its own set of podcasts and its own slide decks, they tend to be a little less receptive to, marginally, still overwhelmingly, in favor of multiple learning options, but also more in favor of a singular approach compared to parents, and that’s reflected in the job market a little bit. If you look at job listings for teaching positions, the ones that say, “Hey, we need you to teach online,” are unfilled for a lot longer than the ones that don’t have that statement, and I know around here in the Indianapolis area, they had such an issue with that, that if anybody’s interested in online, they shuttle them to charter schools in the area and charter schools with less rules regarding teacher salaries and things like that. Those are lower paying positions as well around here.

So, there’s some difficulty in providing it, but I think that districts, I think, should learn from the second time around that there’s going to be demand for multiple learning options for a long time, because we’re getting used to uncertainty. Maybe we’re beginning to expect uncertainty and we’re becoming more familiar with alternatives and districts should really think about investing in the infrastructure and the labor long-term to accommodate different options as opposed to going back to normal as soon as possible, because there’s a lot of parents out there that want something different.

Mike McShane: If only districts had $200 billion in federal money to try to, oh no, wait. They do. They do have now $200 billion from three Coronavirus bills, so I appreciate all of those concerns, John, but if I may do a small amount of editorializing here as the host of this podcast, the crocodile tears from school districts of, “We can’t find people,” or we can’t whatever, when you are swimming, Scrooge McDuck-like in Coronavirus cash should perhaps fall on deaf ears from some people, but one thing that I do want to raise, one question that we’ve asked, because there’s been this big thing, especially around some of the federal government’s statistics on homeschool and others, this question, what are we going to see this fall? Where are people going to actually enroll their kids? And we asked this question and we have a simple answer to this question, and Morning Consult put together, I think a really cool graphic for us, and I would recommend people checking out where we’re actually seeing the flows of children, where you were last school year and where you’re going to be this year, but it looks like, Drew Catt, the breakdown this year, at least thus far, so just from what parents are telling us, 75% of parents said that they’re going to send their kids to a district school, 10% private school, 9% homeschool, 5% charter school.

That would seem to me to be roughly in line with historical norms for private schooling, roughly in line for charter schooling, but a pretty serious increase in homeschooling. If we think historically something like three to five percent of people homeschool, that’s anywhere from a doubling to a tripling of homeschooling, and it seems like a fair amount of that, and even from our graphic, it seems like a fair amount of, there’s been some kind of swinging between public schools to homeschools and homeschools to public schools, so it doesn’t seem like necessarily a settled issue, but when you look at that, either the flow graphic or that bar chart of where these folks are enrolling, what do you see? What story are they telling you?

Drew Catt: Yeah, thanks Mike. I think, honestly, the overall numbers don’t surprise me and that’s because John and I had just finished wrapping up all the charts and everything for our national poll that we do on an annual basis Schooling in America, so shameless plug for that product coming out here in the next week or two.

Mike McShane: Always be closing.

Drew Catt: Yeah.

John Kristof: That’s some sales right there.

Drew Catt: The overall numbers don’t surprise me and that overall shift doesn’t surprise me. What’s fascinating, as you pointed out with the flowchart, kind of who’s going where. Where I thought the homeschool students would be split between the public and charter, it does seem like they’re majoritively, just going back to the district schools, and it’s not that much necessarily from the charter sector going back to district. It seems like those that did maybe go into the charter sector for the first time during the spring 2020, or in the last school year, they’re maybe staying there. As you said, a lot of people who have started homeschooling, seem to be sticking with it.

Now, there may be other factors there, like tentatively, the parents are staying home, whereas they used to work full-time in an office. With more and more companies going full-time remote, maybe it’s logistically easier for parents to homeschool their children. I’m not really sure what that reason is. That’s something that I would love to peel apart in the future, why homeschooling is sticking and why the parents who are choosing to homeschool that had never homeschooled in the past, are choosing to stay that way.

A lot of us that work in the professional world, many of us have gotten used to working from home and find ourselves highly efficient working from home, and going back into the office can be a bigger disruption than working from home is where it used to, at least for me, it used to be the opposite, whereas working from home was slightly less efficient and a little more disruptive than my typical day of working in the office. I wonder how much of that is trickling down to schooling and how much the kids are more comfortable at home and the parents are more comfortable at home.

Mike McShane: Jen Wagner, professional, political communicator, convincer extraordinaire. I want you to explain some numbers to me here. We’ve been asking a question since March of 2020, a standard question that shows up in surveys of the kind of right track, wrong track. Right direction about… So, do you think that things in K-12 education are generally going in the right direction or do you think that they’ve generally gotten on the wrong track? And we asked people to say your local school district, the state, national, and we break this down between all adults and parents. The patterns basically the same, so I’ll use the all adult numbers here.

In March of 2020, 41% of Americans said that their district was on the right track. 38% said that their state and 33% said that the national education system was on the right track. In this survey, it is July of 2021, and those numbers, remembering they were 41, 38, 33, they are 40, 38, 31. All of these things have happened, and again, not just a pandemic, but also as Drew has mentioned, contentious hearings, whether it was about critical race theory or whether it was about masking or whether it was about vaccination, all of this stuff has happened, and yet the fundamental numbers of what people think about the American education system have not changed.

On one level, because I don’t know what I’m talking about, but you do, does this surprise you? Because again, as somebody who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, that seems shocking to me that it’s like, no one has really changed their mind. Again, maybe it’s a different 40% of people but these numbers have stayed the same. How do you make sense of that? Because it seems crazy to me that even, I don’t know which direction it would necessarily go in, but I just assumed that it would be different.

Jen Wagner: Yeah. Well, I don’t know that I’m an expert in any of the things that you just said that I am an expert in, but-

Mike McShane: Don’t you dare sell yourself short. You absolutely are.

Jen Wagner: I’m thinking of a line from Caddyshack here. You’re quite the slouch. Anyway, I think there are a number of things that play in here and it is also important, you picked the all adults number to also look at the parents’ level of right track, wrong track. When it comes to K-12 education, it’s much higher, but in most of my presentations, I break this down as the congressional effect, not the economic theory of the congressional effect, but the effect that, if you are closest to something, even though you do not like the broader institution or the broader system, you are more likely to feel an affinity toward the thing that is closest to you, especially when it comes to schools and you might walk by your local public school every day. You might get to take a look at the playground where the kids are out there having a good time.

That to me explains why you see the higher percentage of right direction among local school districts then compared to the state or national numbers. You see that even more so in the parent numbers where you’ve got 57% of parents saying that their local school district is on the right track compared to only 46% who say that the K-12 system nationally is on the right track. Parents tend to be more enthusiastic, more satisfied by what they’re seeing, which is natural, because they have skin in the game. They’ve got kids in the system, whether they’re in the public schools or whether they’re in another schooling type. I think though more broadly, what you’re getting at, is our cynicism as a society, but also our willingness to go back to these institutions.

I would go outside of our polling, one of the most fascinating polls, I think that gets done every year is, the Pew Research Center does a trust in government, trust in institutions study, and we just don’t have a strong belief in our institutions anymore, and that is true across the board, whether it’s schools, whether it is churches, faith organizations, so we have become over the last couple of decades, incredibly skeptical of institutions and systems, and I think that’s what you see reflected in here in that, yes, things went way down in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, but we’ve reset to a baseline, but the baseline is still pretty skeptical.

Mike McShane: Yes. I think that’s all right. Thank you. I appreciate you. That makes a lot of sense. John, you are one of the faces of EdChoice on TikTok, and for those listening to the podcast who do not follow EdChoice’s TikTok, you should. It’s EdChoice.official. And I got to tell you there’s been some hubbub on the old TikTok channel. I’d like to think that I set off some of this, but you and I have been doing a bit of a buddy act on this, talking about school spending. I’d like to say, blowing some folks’ minds about how school dollars get spent, but this is something we haven’t talked about on the podcast in a bit, but a question that we routinely have asked is, what do people think that we actually spend on education? And then once people know how much we spend, do they think that’s too high or too low?

What do you see when you look at those? Because when I say these things, what was it, the median estimate, I think for all adults in our sample, when we ask them how much America spends on education, they guess it’s like $5,000 per kid, and parents think it’s even lower than that, when, depending on your estimate, it’s probably anywhere from 12 1/2 to 14 1/2 thousand dollars. Americans discount by two thirds, potentially even more than that, how much we spend on education. How do we have a conversation about education when people seem to lack basic facts about how much we spend? What’s going on there?

John Kristof: It is pretty amazing to me that we’ve been asking this question for as long as we have and different federal legislation has passed during that time, and Coronavirus has passed through different phases, and K-12 has been on a lot of people’s minds more than maybe it otherwise would, and the median estimate among all adults remains a solid $5,000 per child. We know that for one, the idea of federal money being available to public schools is not very quickly on people’s minds. Otherwise, if it was on people’s minds or if they made that connection, I would imagine we would see higher estimates of per pupil funding per pupil spending, and I don’t know if that’s going to change as the school year comes. I know that some districts have plans on how they’re going to spend the money in the long-term, but not a lot has been spent so far based on NCES data.

We’re very disconnected, I think, from public spending generally, and I think that’s very demonstrable when you see how far off parents are compared to everyone else. We just have a guess of what things cost. We have a guess of how much money people make. We have a guess of what kind of expenses a school has for capital and buildings and things like that, and we don’t scrutinize what kinds of deals that our public institutions make, and school’s a very large example of that. I think that’s something that we’re trying to point out. I think it’s fair to say you did kick it off, certainly on our channel on TikTok.

When people think about schools and they think about expenditures, the first thing they think of is teachers. They think if schools is struggling, what we need is better teachers. We need more money to pay teachers what they’re worth, and maybe encourage people to be more teachers that way, but certainly give teachers what they’re worth, what they put in, and because it’s the first thing on people’s minds, they don’t tend to think that teachers really only make up 25 to 30% of a school’s expenses most of the time, and when you think about other things that you might think of, of providing food, of cleaning the building and things like that, you don’t tick the needle up very much at all, and I think you have to say, 4,000 per child gets at maybe what people think of at the front of their mind, of the people involved at the school, but they don’t think about the more difficult unseen expenditures of pensions, of capital expenses, curriculum that may or may not need to be as expensive as it is, and they don’t question why schools maybe don’t get better deals, things like that.

That’s its own topic, but I think the point is, is that we’re seeing more and more examples of how much of a disconnect there is between people who receive the public services and what actually does go into or needs to go into a public service or what doesn’t need to go into it.

Mike McShane: And as we hit the witching hour here, Drew Catt, I’ll give you the last comment here, but I want to give some numbers ahead of time, because with this question where after asking people how much they think we actually spend, we just ask them a general question. We say, do you believe public school spending in your state is too high, too low, or about right? And then, we’ll actually give the number and ask again. Without information, 51% of folks think that their state spends too little. Once we tell people what they actually spend, that drops to only 34%. School parents, it’s actually very similar, it drops from 51% to 35%. Is information a solution here? Is there a way to get out of understanding people to help people better understand what’s going on with schools that are there, or when you look at those numbers, what do you say?

Drew Catt: Yeah, and if I was the amazing editor that Jacob Vinson is, this is the point where I would just insert the six second YouTube clip, not that this is a video podcast, from one of my favorite, favorite television shows as a kid growing up and some of my favorite action figures, and that’s GI Joe. For those of you not familiar with the cartoon series or GI Joes in general, they were these small military action figures. If you don’t know what a GI Joe is, just go to a department store. Anyone will have them or ask your parents. They’ll know. But at the end there was this nice PSA and it always ended with, “And now we know, and knowing is half the battle.” I think that is very much true when it comes to school spending. Once people find out, they’re like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, this totally changes my mind,” and knowing is half the battle, how information is power. How much more can we, as a nation, be doing to allow parents to understand how much schools cost?

We found in some of our polling, I’m led to believe that ESA parents become more savvy consumers and they are more likely to know what schools actually cost. We founded our national polling because we asked the question about school spending both about public schools and about private schools that people are actually pretty knowledgeable about how much private schools cost and have no idea how much public schools cost. How much of an information campaign can there be? And the federal government just started releasing the school-by-school spending information, so we’re just now able to work with groups like Project Nickel and be able to show what the spending estimates are on a actual school level basis. Hopefully, with the more information that’s coming out, knowing is half the battle. Hopefully more people can be informed because I don’t know about a single person or at least a single parent, goes to a store and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I’ll take that one. I don’t care how much it costs,” because that’s not how we live the rest of our lives, so why are we okay with that in K-12 education?

Mike McShane: Well, Drew Catt, John Kristof, Jen Wagner, it’s been such a joy chatting with you today. Drew, thanks for shouting them out because I sometimes forget to, and I feel terrible every time I do, our fantastic podcast producer, Jacob, who’s going to make all of this make sense here in the future. Also, I think throughout the podcast, we’ve heard some different shout outs. Project Nickel, which is a project that we’ve been, just Google it. Do you want school level spending information? You can get it there at Project Nickel, our TikTok account, EdChoice.official. As always, check out our website, www.EdChoice.org. We recently redid it. It looks awesome. It’s super user-friendly and get all the content that you need there. So once again, it has been a joy to be with all of you, and I look forward to talking to you again in the future on another edition of EdChoice Chats.