Ep. 266: 2021 Schooling In America Survey

September 2, 2021

The annual edition of our Schooling in America Survey with Braun Research launched today. Check out the key findings according to the report’s authors on your commute, over lunch or whenever you listen to your podcasts.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today we’re discussing a new edition of Schooling in America, EdChoice’s annual polling project. The purpose of this survey project is to measure public opinion on, and in some cases, awareness or knowledge of a range of K-12 education topics in school choice reforms. This survey has statistically representative nationwide sample of adults, so those ages 18 and up and K-12 parents, was funded by EdChoice, developed by EdChoice, and conducted by Braun Research.

Here to discuss the findings for the poll are my colleagues, Jen Wagner, and John Kristof. Thanks for joining y’all.

Jen Wagner: Great to be here.

John Kristof: Thanks. Excited to talk about this.

Drew Catt: Yeah. So just to start off for the listeners that have not already pulled up the report and gone through it themselves, this was fielded or administered kind of mid-June to early July, June 14th to July 8th.

And yeah, this does include pretty much any adult living in the United States, including DC. And we did make sure that we had enough school parents to be able to kind of over-sample that population to give good statistically representative results. And we also did have small quotas to make sure that we had enough African American school parents and Hispanic school parents to really report out those populations.

But for those of you that are familiar with schooling in America and EdChoice’s polling, you know that we have one question that always leads the pack when we report out results. And that is “What’s the direction of K-12 education?” We really use this to kind of get a pulse on, it was an annual basis. Now we can also do it on a monthly basis through our Morning Consult project. And really it’s the basic question of, “Okay, what do you think about K-12 education? Is it heading in the right direction or off on the wrong track?”

And we found this year that the trends are a little different when we’re looking at all Americans versus just cool parents. So all Americans, we’re at the most positive we’ve been out ever for education heading in the right direction, with 41%. The majority, 53%, still say wrong track. And we did have a little blip that will show up on a lot of our polling results from kind of the 2020 COVID impact of people’s views on educational school choice policies. But we see there’s actually an increase of parents saying wrong track. So Jen being a parent yourself and having kids in school and being very close to, working in K-12 education policy, what do you really make of this?

Jen Wagner: That’s a good questions, Drew. I think as I look at these couple of slides that show right track wrong track, both for 2021, for this year’s survey, but then also looking backward. I think what I see most is, there’s still a fair amount of skepticism among parents, right? So we’ve seen that it’s roughly hovers in the 52 to 56% range over the last seven years, which I think is understandable. Parents are closer to the system and have more of a reason to potentially be skeptical and think it might not be on the right track.

What I think is interesting in the general population survey is that, yes, from last year where wrong track was 63%, to this year where it’s 53%, that’s a huge drop. But I think that is reflective of sort of our idealistic view of the K-12 system.

Last year, we couldn’t look away. 2020 was a nightmare for K-12. A lot of people who thought their schools were performing well, meeting their needs, realized that in a crisis and a pandemic that they weren’t. And there was kind of a shattering of our view of that system.

But I think what you see reflected back in this year’s number, where it’s a little bit more toward normal and maybe even a little bit less wrong track than it has been in the past is a hopefulness, right? We don’t want the K-12 system to be not meeting needs. We want it to be good. And so I think that’s what’s reflected in that change over time. John might have a different view, but that’s what I see in those numbers.

John Kristof: Yeah. I think there’s a couple of important caveats when looking at these graphs that I even had to catch myself on. The first thing that you notice when you just look at the graphs is, “Oh, wow. The general population was like substantially more positive about the direction of K-12 education this year than they were last year when we fielded this in the heart of COVID in 2020.” Parents actually dropped a little bit. But it’s important to recognize that parents generally, we could probably fairly say the parents still generally are more positive about the direction of K-12 education than the general population.

One thing that I think is important, that kind of backs that up, is the percentage of the general population that says that they don’t know. They don’t know if it’s going in the right track or the wrong track. And again, they’re not parents, so maybe they’re not so close to the matter. Last year, almost everybody had an opinion on where K-12 was going because we saw a huge drop in people who are willing to say that they didn’t know. It dropped down to 2%, which was easily the lowest number that we had seen. And this year it popped back up to 6%, which is kind of how you see some people saying that the wrong track went down and the right direction went up while still having a lower level of positivity than parents generally.

Parents are close to the issue. So very few of them for several years now say that they don’t know. And if you follow our tracker, something that I’ve pointed out in some of our tracker blogs when we polled this question monthly with Morning Consult, pretty consistently parents are more positive about the direction of K-12 education than the general population.

But additionally, they tend to be more positive about the direction of K-12 education the more localized the question gets. So arguably the more proximate they are to the issue. So for example, they are more positive about K-12 education in their local area than they are in the state. And they’re more positive about the state than they are nationally. And when you segregate it a little bit further and consider that the general population’s even further removed, you kind of begin to see a pattern here.

So when we fielded the survey, COVID looked like it might have been going in the rear view mirror to a lot of people, and I think that contributed to a lot of the general population kind of reverting back to a positive trend. Okay. COVID was the thing that rallied everyone together and said, “COVID is a problem. K-12 education is going in the wrong direction. Okay. COVID is going away. That means things are getting better.” Whereas parents who are close to this issue, may be more proximate to some of the controversies that have been going on with back to school and things like that, they’re not going to change their opinion very much from one year to the next.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I think it’s interesting when we kind of split out the different groups of parents. So when we looked at some of the demographics, I was really interested in looking at the differences between schooling sectors. For those of you who follow my parents surveys, you know I’m a big fan of splitting out schooling sectors, just because people have different experiences depending on what type of school their child goes to and different views.

So we saw that really the demographic that stood out to me was that charter school parents were more positive than negative. So there were 52% that said right direction compared to 48% saying wrong track. Whereas homeschool parents were the most negative with kind of that 15% more saying wrong track, just about the same as the public district schools.

But then if you connect this to a separate question that we had, which is “How would you rate the schools in your area?” And we saw for the first time that for school parents assigning an A or B rating, there was a significant advantage to the charter schools over the public district schools. There had been a couple of years back in, I guess, mid 20 teens or the early 20 teens, however you describe ’16 and ’17. I’m not the expert on that. That they were kind of within the margin of error, neck and neck, but really it’s a 14 point gap, which is kind of astounding because this is almost the largest advantage flipped that we’ve seen in the past, of more people giving A and B rankings to really their public district schools. And once again, like the private schools, about three out of four parents would give an A or B.

But yeah, John and Jen, having those different experiences and John, having a wife that’s a teacher, although yours is in a different sector, what do y’all make about this? Do you think it was kind of people noticing charter schools more or having a different view of charter schools over the last year? Yeah. What do you think could have tentatively led to this shift?

John Kristof: I mean I think people definitely have taken more over the last year and change. A lot of parents have taken more agency and notice over their children’s education than they otherwise would have. They have seen their children learn and maybe how their children learn, and perhaps how their children learn compared to how they’re asked to learn through their maybe public district school.

And when you have that knowledge of maybe all is not right in your child’s world, you begin to familiarize yourself a little bit more with alternative options. And if you’re lucky enough to have charter schools in your area, you might familiarize yourself with those options. You may choose that. You may not choose that. I also know that parents have perhaps relied on each other a lot more through this pandemic process than they otherwise would have. And then you learn from other people’s experiences at different kinds of schools and how kids are doing.

Charter schools generally operate with a lot more administrative flexibility in exchange for more accountability measures. And as a result, they’re kind of primed to adapt in ways that district schools often are not. And even in my hometown of Indianapolis now, charter schools are the places that you want to go if you want something different. If you’re concerned about COVID and want to continue doing online and things like that, charter schools are the places to go, to the extent that the district here in Indianapolis will actively tell you to go do that if you’re looking for a virtual COVID safe option.

Jen Wagner: Yeah. I think those are all really good points and they lead into, obviously I’m our VP of Communication, so I try to approach things probably more from a messaging standpoint. And I think one of the things that I’ve noticed has happened with charter schools. So if you look longitudinally at our polling of all the types of school choice, they are still very popular, but they tend to be less popular as a type of school choice than vouchers or ESAs.

I have an operative theory on that as a communicator, which is, look, when charter schools got stood up, they were public enemy number one for folks who tend to be more of a defender of the status quo. And so they took a lot of incoming fire. They took a lot of heat. They took a lot of criticism. And I think that has accounted for historically them maybe being a little less popular quote-unquote.

But John, to your point, obviously parents’ worlds got turned upside down in 2020. And I think if you look at the numbers for grading local schools, you see both that charter schools went way, way up. And you’ve got that flip from where public district schools used to be. And you see the private school, A and B ratings are off the charts in 2020 and 2021. So they’re up at 74%, which is the highest they’ve ever been historically since we’ve done this survey.

I think the pandemic caused a lot of folks, to your point, to look for other options. Maybe in the past, they might’ve believed the negativity around charter schools. “Oh, they’re just destroying traditional public schools. They don’t have any rules. They’re not accountable.” All those myths that have been thrown at charters over the years. But then they needed the options and maybe they couldn’t get to a private school. I mean, we’re extremely lucky we’re headquartered here in Indianapolis, in Indiana, which is a very choice friendly state.

So if I was here and I didn’t like what my public district school was doing, maybe I could go out and get a voucher, make that switch. But in many, many states, that’s not an option. And so I think, again this is me as a communicator, mostly putting out a hypothesis. But I think that people went with the next attainable thing, which was in many cases, a charter school. And they were probably pleased to find out, “Oh, all of those myths, all of that negative hype around charters was false. They are flexible. They are accessible and they are good.”

Drew Catt: Yeah. And Jen, this is why I love these podcasts because when we’re writing these reports, it’s all about the data and we don’t make those hypotheses. But on the podcast, all is fair game to pontificate and wonder and guess, hypothesize why stuff is the way that it is.

John, you made a really interesting point, or I guess hypothesis as well, about parents sharing more information with each other. Especially, refinancing my house, talking with my friends. “Oh, what rate did you get? What rate did you get?” Why isn’t that happening with school funding is a great question. And I think it comes with most parents not having any idea in the first place.

So when we asked about how much do you think schools cost in your area? We specified by state and we went through the trouble of breaking out, okay, here’s what they said. Here’s what the state actually spends. Did they overestimate or underestimate? And when we’re looking at all respondents, it’s 77% underestimate with the kind of the median saying 7,000 sounds like a good price when the actual price in 2018, ’19, depending on what state or district, DC, you lived in was about 8,000, so almost 25,000.

Parents were more likely to underestimate the cost of schooling with 81% saying overestimate. About four out of five saying overestimate and the median being about 5,000 per student, which is a lot less than the about eight to 25,000. So Jen, yeah, being a parent, knowing more than most parents about school spending, why do you think parents are so quick to underestimate how much they think schooling costs?

Jen Wagner: Yeah. I wish I had a good answer to this one because it’s flummoxed me for the five and a half years that I have been with EdChoice. I see it reflected back. We’ve done some focus group work in the past. I see it in my everyday conversations with folks about school funding and school choice. And I think we just don’t have any idea how much these things cost. And I mean, I could even say, in a former role I helped with communications for a large urban school district. When I asked, I said, “Could you just give me a breakdown of your spending per school, per school, in the district?” They were like, “Well, not really. It’s really difficult,” because we lose students or we shift money from here to here. And like, it was not the answer I was expecting.

And again, I was on a contract to help them with their communications. And my thought was, “Oh my gosh. You’ve got a school here that’s getting less money per student, but still turning out amazing results. We can highlight that.” But I couldn’t even really get that information as someone trying to help tell their story. And so I think it’s just this mystery world out there, and I think parents just guesstimate what they think things cost maybe based on college tuition or what they’ve heard people talk about.

And so we have a lot of work to do here because I don’t have to tell you guys this, the number one knock on school choice is, “Ah, you’re diverting money away from traditional public schools. And therefore you are harming those students because you’re not supporting them while you’re supporting the kids that leave.” That’s the number one argument against school choice. We hear it all the time.

The answer is obviously right here in these slides and in this data, but how do we get that story across. That, no, like actually kids are funded at a relatively high rate and here’s how much they’re getting. And oh, by the way, and I know this is into your research area. Like if you look at how much it costs to put a kid on a voucher or send a kid to private school, it’s actually much less. I don’t have the answer to that. If I did, I would probably be a millionaire because I could go out there and sell it to all the school choice groups that are trying to advocate for change.

Drew Catt: I feel like this is the perfect opportunity for a shameless plug to check out Projects Nickel at projectnickel.com made by Lincoln Studio and funded by EdChoice. It will actually show you how much your public school spends. Still uploading some of the data but the majority of districts and schools are in there. So go online, check it out.

So we’re starting to run a little low on time. There’s some great data. We always kind of do a separate split-out every year where we ask new questions. So please, please check out the report and the slide deck and our online dashboard, which is edchoice.org/siadashboard, for Schooling in America. We have great questions on learning pods and tutoring, but let’s get to the bread and butter. Let’s get to the school choice questions.

So this was the first year that we kind of asked a general question about school choice. It’s kind of based on what I’ve heard from others. “Do you support or oppose school choice?” We had about one out of five of all respondents that said that they’d never heard of school choice. Almost one out of four parents had said that they had never heard of school choice. And I think that just shows how much of a lack of awareness there is around the issue. On the plus side, they were very, very favorable, less than one out of five adults said that they were opposed and slightly more than one out of 10 parents said that they were opposed.

But I think this really gets to a larger issue because when we ask about specific program types, only one out of 10 overall respondents said that they’d never heard of charter schools. So how many don’t connect charter schools to school choice is a great question. And then about a quarter of all respondents had never heard of vouchers. About one out of three had never heard of ESAs or Education Savings Accounts. However, when we give them the definitions, people are overall supportive of these policies and ways to get into a different school.

So about two out of three or more, all the way up to about four to five for ESAs, general respondents support these programs. And then overall the results are even higher for parents. And this is where we really did see kind of an interesting 2020 spike and the results where things were definitely elevated in terms of favorability. But if we compare to 2019 results now are about the same as, or a little bit higher. And this is true for both overall adults and for parents.

So quickly, Jen, John, what do you make of kind of this gap of people still don’t know about this stuff? Like people are more willing to say, “Oh, I’ve heard about charter schools,” but they really don’t make that connection to school choice and EdChoice, we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. We’ve been doing this work for a long time. And there still so many people who have never heard of school choice. Now yes, some of them may be in states like California or large populated states like California and New York that don’t have any private school choice programs. But yeah, what do you all make of these findings?

John Kristof: Because it’s so much of this comes down to education. I think this is really telling and helpful I think for school choice advocates who are listening to this to remember to look outside our comfort zone and our backyard a little bit. Because I think a lot of us would be surprised at this number, that one in four parents have never heard of school choice. Because for us it’s ubiquitous. It feels like a contentious issue, but actually nearly all of the people who have heard of school choice say that they support it.

So combining that with the numbers that we see, we do the split sample questions. We ask people, “Hey, what’s your opinion on ESAs, vouchers, charters?” We randomize whether we give them what, if I may say so myself, is a very helpful neutral description of what ESAs, charters, and vouchers are. We randomize whether they get the description or not. And there’s just massive jumps in support from people who do get that description.

So what we see is if you know what school choice is as an abstract concept, most people support it. If you know what an ESA is, even more overwhelmingly people support it. If you know what vouchers are, most people support it. If you know what charter schools are. If you know what it is, there is overwhelming support. But there still is so many people who don’t know what school choice is, what school choice means.

I’m thinking of the story, you mentioned that my wife is a teacher. She came across someone who works at a charter school who didn’t know what a charter school was. This is the level of… And it’s not to shame her because no one in a job interview was like, “Can you explain how a charter school gets its funding?” Like no one asks that. But there is a lot of potential supporters out there who just don’t know about the issue at all.

And if I can jump to kind of like the end of our slide deck here, we have a question. We asked the general population, but also parents, what their priorities in K-12 education is this year. And one in five, about 22%, of current school parents say that choice and opportunity is one of their top three issues in K-12 education.

So this issue is really important to a lot of people. And a lot of people don’t know the policies that are out there that can help them achieve these education goals and priorities that they have. So there’s fertile ground for us at school choice advocates.

Jen Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. I will be brief. I know we’re trying to get things wrapped up on this particular edition of the podcast. But I think it’s interesting to look at those issue questions and then how people you know about or don’t know about the issue of school choice. I am a broken record on this and I sit around and thinking about it a lot because it’s my job. But also because, as a parent, I want more parents to be empowered to have these options.

And when we think about issues, some of the ones that we ask about, jobs and the economy, or gun rights, or LGBTQ+ rights, like we ask about those. And when you look at issue advocacy and I’ve worked at it for a long time, those are issues that are with you forever. So once you become a climate activist, you’re a climate activist forever.

One of the issues that we face in the school choice world is that if we’re talking to parents, we really only have them for a limited amount of time. So we obviously have some uber parent activists out there that are amazing and they are devoting their whole lives to this. But if I’m just a regular parent, I probably have 12 years where I deeply care about this issue. Maybe more if I’ve got multiple children. But we’re trying to get to those folks, influence them, educate them, and let them know their options in a very narrow window. And after they get done, they’re probably not going to stay on as activists.

So it’s important for us to consider that. And the other thing that I’ll close on is these are really personal decisions. I’m a broken record on this as well. Whenever I do a training, it’s all great and wonderful to say, “Whazam, you’ve got school choice options,” but those conversations, and this is born out at other research that we have done in the past at the state level. Those conversations happen most at church, or at the grocery store, or at book club, between friends and family members and trusted folks in a personal social circle.

Those are the places that people go to get this information to maybe trust to say, “Oh, I’m not really happy with my current schooling experience.” And that’s where those decisions get made. So for us as advocates, yeah, we can put up more billboards and we can send out more postcards, but where we actually need to get, if we want to influence that percentage of awareness, or people and how they feel about the issue, it’s a very granular, very personal level of persuasion.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s a really good point, Jen. Thank you so much for your time today. For those of you listening, if you’re interested in looking at more data such as 76% of people would agree that ESAs and school choice should be universal versus just 50% say needs-based. Or you want to look at our new questions on inter- and intra- district enrollment and see that, “Oh, it’s actually the public district school parents and the homeschool parents that most favor their student being able to transfer to another public school within the district. And when it comes to transferring to another public school outside of the district, it’s the homeschooler parents that have the huge advantage.”

Anyway, if you’re interested in this and more, please check out our dashboard at edchoice.org/siadashboard, for Schooling in America. The other projects mentioned today were Morning Consult. Check out edchoice.morningconsultintelligence.com. See our monthly tracker and check out Project Nickel at projectnickel.com to kind of see what schools in your area may spend.

And with that, that wraps up this edition of EdChoice Chats. Be sure to check out the description of this podcast for a link to the School in America report and dashboard. And be sure to subscribe to our podcasts wherever you get them, it’s your choice, so you never miss another episode. If you have any questions or comments about the polling results, feel free to reach out to us on social media. You can find us at EdChoice. Until next time take care.