Ep. 306: Monthly Tracker – February 2022

March 8, 2022

We hear from members of the research team about the results from February’s general population poll, including answers to some new questions.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. It’s great to be with you again. We have another episode today of our monthly tracker podcast. Frequent listeners will know, but new listeners and I certainly hope there are some of you in the audience today, I’m going to tell you something new that maybe you didn’t know. And that’s that we at EdChoice in partnership with Morning Consult poll a nationally representative sample of Americans every month. We poll a nationally representative sample of teachers every quarter, but we’re not talking about that today.

What we’re going to talk about today is results from our most recent poll, which was in the field between February 12th and 15th of 2022. So we looked at a national representative sample of Americans. We over sample parents to get a nationally representative sample of parents as well.

We added some new questions this month, which is going to be really interesting to talk about. We asked some questions around open enrollment. We asked actually some interesting questions about why people support school choice. If you’ve been listening to the podcast before, our surveys have consistently found very strong support for all manner of school choice, ESAs, charter schools, school vouchers, tax credits, the whole kit and caboodle. But we had this wild hair this month to say, maybe we just ask folks why they support. And we actually asked people who said that they don’t support why they don’t, but we’ll get to that later.

We need to start, though, with obviously something that’s been on this podcast’s mind, everybody’s mind, and that is the coronavirus. We talked about last month’s podcast, it was sort of the Omicron podcast because we had seen all of these trends and sort of attitudes about the effects that the coronavirus was having, parents’ comfort for sending their kids back. They had all been sort of trending in the same direction, and then Omicron kind of threw a wrench into everything.

It seems like this month, maybe we’re back to the trends before. We may be regressing to the mean. We’re going to get into all of this, and I’m super excited today to be joined by my colleagues, Drew Catt and John Kristof.

John, I’ll probably throw it to you first. A question we’ve been asking for months: Based on what you’ve seen, read, or heard about the coronavirus outbreak so far, how comfortable are you with sending your children to school right now? We saw a big shift from January in this poll. In the middle of February, 74% of parents said that they were comfortable sending their kids back. So that’s very comfortable, plus somewhat comfortable. And only 22% said that they were uncomfortable. So pretty serious shifts from January. What did you see in those numbers?

John Kristof: Yeah, I saw that Omicron did not have a very long lasting impact on people’s perceptions of school, and how they want to interact with school going forward. So just for some context, with 74% of parents saying that they’re comfortable sending their kids to school right now, that’s basically as high a number as we’ve ever seen. That is just about the same number as we saw when the vaccines were first distributed, kind of the time where broad swaths of the population received two doses of the vaccines. So essentially May, 2021 was about this number. And after the Delta wave, essentially in early fall and late fall, we were seeing about this number of three out of four parents.

And we are back to that number after just a little bit of a dip. So Omicron, maybe much like the case numbers themselves, the concerns around Omicron maybe had a quick spike and a quick fall as well. And we see this in a lot of the different questions that we ask about COVID-19 in these surveys.

Mike McShane: Yeah. Something for which we can all be thankful.

John Kristof: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Mike McShane: I think this has not necessarily been a good news podcast, but in 2022 we’re turning this thing around.

John Kristof: You know, every once in a while we have to throw in a drop of positivity.

Drew Catt: Just a little added context with like the timing of when this survey happened in mid February, you have to also realize that this is when a lot of districts across the country and state health departments across the country were rolling back mask mandates in schools. So I wonder how many parents also saw that as kind of like a signal that, oh, the district is saying that they’re not going to have masks anymore, so things must be better and I’m more comfortable. Just curious as to like the timing of that and how that may have impacted some respondents answers.

John Kristof: It’s no coincidence that people feel more comfortable with sending their kid to school at the same time that they also say that they feel that COVID is less disruptive to their community than they have at any other point since we started asking this question when COVID started happening.

Mike McShane: No for sure. And actually Drew, I was going to ask you because you brought up these issues of masks, obviously vaccines have been in the conversation. So we’ve asked this question: Now that an approved vaccine is available, do you think it should be mandatory or encouraged for the following groups? We talk about teachers. We talk about college professors. We talk about just like general employees and students. So we asked them, should it be mandatory? Should it be encouraged, but not mandatory? Or should it be neither encouraged nor mandatory?

You know, interestingly, at least in the mandatory side, I think on almost all of them from January to February, we saw some pretty serious decline. These numbers have been pretty stable over time, but this month we saw some pretty serious drops in the percentage of people who think masks and vaccines should be mandatory. Do you think that’s like an Omicron effect? Do you think that is, as you mentioned, that schools were already getting rid of these, so folks are saying school already got rid of them, so why are we talking about making the mandatory, if they’re not around anymore? What do you think when you see those numbers?

Drew Catt: Kind of like what you said and what we were talking about. I think just the signal that districts are loosening mask requirements or making masks no longer mandatory is having a big impact. So personally I suspect that the numbers will drop even more when we ask this again next month, just because more people are getting used to life without masks. I’m not going to talk about the science of masking or anything, but talking to a friend who has a PhD in immunology and works in the field, in his opinion, a lot of the school policies are catching up. And with the new CDC masking guidelines with like, whether you’re being more county based. I feel like there’s a lot more information that has come out around masks, and masking, and when to mask just in the last month than maybe in the last six months combined. Yeah. All that’s to say, it’s not surprising to me. And I’m definitely not going to be surprised if this drop continues into next month.

Mike McShane: You know, one thing that we do want to think about, that there is a bit of a tale of Omicron. So we ask this question: In the last month have any of your children quarantined because of the COVID-19 outbreak? And then we asked a follow-up question: How disruptive do you think that quarantining has been to your child’s education?

So obviously a lot of these are questions about people’s opinions at that moment, but looking back a month still in that month, 38% of parents said that at least one of their children had been quarantined. And the overwhelming percentage of respondents, 75% of them, 80% of them, said that had been disruptive. So John, we are sort of celebrating the crest of that wave and that’s obviously an unadulterated good thing. But I mean, it’s not totally gone. Quarantining and things are still happening. Kids are still missing out.

John Kristof: Yeah, it definitely is a concerning number. And it’s still concerning that parents feel that when their kids are missing school, it is problematic for their kids’ education. Those are definite concerns. Omicron was just such a fast moving phenomenon too, that we don’t ask specific dates. And even if we did ask specific dates, I wouldn’t trust the average person taking the survey to remember exactly what happened when. But a lot of these numbers could very well be caught up when Omicron was at its peak, right?

So we fielded the survey mid-February and Omicron was still pretty significant in mid-January. Hopefully we see this number decline next month, presuming that there’s no Omicron level spike between now and then, fingers crossed. So to me, it is a concern that this has happened. And I think the big concern is we’ve spent a lot of time quarantining. We spent a lot of time away from school environments, and still a lot of parents are dissatisfied with the kind of education that their child gets when they can’t go to school in person. We’re approaching two years after the first time that this had to happen. I think that’s a shame. And I think that’s something that we should probably think about, but hopefully the impact of that will be a little less as fewer children have to quarantine in the upcoming months.

Mike McShane: Well, as you mentioned, as we look forward perhaps a little bit, we can change gears slightly out of the coronavirus pandemic, though definitely these things are impacted by that. We’ve spent a lot of time talking on this podcast before about kind of alternative educational models. You know, the popularity of things like pandemic pods, or hybrid homeschooling. And one of these findings that we’ve seen over and over again is that parents in our surveys will say, a large percentage it’s been, I think in every poll somewhere between 40 and 50% have said, they’d like some kind of hybrid schedule for their kids where kids are in some mix of at-home and at-school.

But this month, Drew Catt, there was a wild shift. One of the things that we found that’s been surprising perhaps was this like big percentage of private school parents. So traditional public school parents weren’t as bullish on hybrid homeschooling. But the private school parents, we saw the largest percentage. But this month saw a huge swing in the number of private school parents who want their kids back full-time, five-day-a-week in school. It’s a 13-point shift from last month where most of these numbers have not shifted more than a point or two each month. What’s going on there? Most of these numbers don’t change that much. Did something happen in private schooling? Is something going on? What do you think happened there?

Drew Catt: I honestly wonder if it’s just the spill-over effects of being more comfortable with their children going to school. Also, you have to think like in January it was just after break. Kids have been playing with friends, family vacation, whatever it is that people do over the winter holiday, getting together. Family, whatnot. I’m assuming that there may have been a fair amount of quarantining that may have happened, having some family members that were sick with COVID myself over the holidays. And really, I think it’s a lot with the comfort level and the fact that, yeah, it’s February. Kids at home, if you work from home it’s really hard in the month of February, I’m going to be honest. So that may have an impact as well with the harder it is to be inside of your house all the time with your kids, the more likely you are to want them completely outside of your house.

I feel like there’s something else to dig out of here. I mean, it would be great to at some point when we aren’t in the middle of multiple projects ongoing simultaneously, to dig deeper into the data and see if there maybe are some regional differences there, or some community level differences there and see what else may pop out that may kind of be more of a driving factor.

Mike McShane: And, John, it wasn’t just hybrid homeschooling. We saw an interesting shift in pod perceptions this month as well. It seems like the percentage of people, if you come combine people who said that they are participating in a pod or would like to form a pod, dropped eight points from January, and this wasn’t universal. Again, if we pull out the kind of cross tabs that the private school parent number was enormous. The floor is open to you thinking these pod numbers in general, if you saw anything in the cross tabs that stood out to you, or why you think we saw this decline in interest in pods?

John Kristof: The thing to understand at the offset, that I think you have to understand going in, is it doesn’t appear that there’s a big exit of people who have been using pods leaving pods right now. I say that because of this eight point decline in pod interest, essentially all of that comes from the group that say that they are not currently in, but are interested in forming a pod, or joining a pod. Because the group that says, yes, we are currently participating in a pod is essentially unchanged from last month.

So there’s something that this group who’s been on the outside looking in, there’s some shift in their perspective, in their needs or desires. There’s been a shift there that says pods maybe is not the best option for them right now. It’s hard not to think about Omicron and the difference in the COVID situation is a possible culprit there. I’d have to dig into these cross tabs in previous months, cross tabs a little bit more to say this, for sure. But if I’m correct, the biggest downward shifts in pod interest that we’ve seen across different groups that we break down, they are groups that have historically been the most excited about pods.

So, I mean, I don’t know if that’s necessarily an interesting insight or whatever, but that would indicate that there’s not a huge shift from people who have not historically been in pods to be even less interested in pods. It’s the people for whom this has been on their mind, or this has been in their community, this is something that they’ve talked about, that they’re just not as interested in anymore. All that said, I think it is important to keep in mind that even though there is a significant downswing, there is still 14% of people, one in seven parents, saying that they are interested in forming or joining a pod. And that’s still a substantial number. It’s just not the same as like one in five, or one in four, as it has been recently. So that’s worth keeping in mind.

Mike McShane: Yeah, no, I think it’s true. Just to put some numbers on things that you said of, yeah, the kind of biggest drops coming from people who are interested. I mean, private school parents, down 28 points from January. People with a education level of a bachelor’s degree or postgrad, down 16 points. High income people, so people with household income more than 75,000, down 21 points. Democrats, down 21 points as well. Interestingly, Republicans only down one point. The Democrats down 21 points. I think like we could only make weird guesses of why that’s happening, but that’s something worth potentially noting.

So as I mentioned at the outset, changing gears again, we added some new questions this month asking about open enrollment. For folks who might not be familiar, open enrollment refers to a either intra- or inter-district choice. So intra-district is the idea that within the boundaries of the school district, you can attend any school that’s in it. So you may not be residentially zoned for that particular elementary school or high school, you can go to the one across town, across the district.

Inter-district choice allows for choice within the public school system, but across district lines. So you can go to the neighbor school district or another one in your general area. So again, this is sort of public school choice. A lot of the questions we ask is about private school choice, homeschooling, et cetera. This is about choice within the traditional public school system. So we decided to ask some questions.

So, Drew, as you look into the responses to our questions, overall, when we just say do you support open enrollment, 46% of respondents say that they support. When we talk about intra- and inter- actually interestingly, both of them see 64% support. We have some interesting kind of cross tabs in there as well. Just big picture, as you look at the responses to those questions, Drew, what do you see?

Drew Catt: I was actually fascinated to see the responses line up so much in the aggregate. And I guess the thing that I’m focusing on is looking at some of the demographic breakouts, just seeing school parents. So specifically school parents, 69% supported intra-district or within district choice. And slightly less, about 67%, said that they supported inter-district, or across district lines. So the fact that even school parents are more or less neck and neck, with a slightly higher preference for staying within the district, that’s not a surprise that much to me. Because parents are also thinking about transportation and once they think about crossing district lines, that’s a whole nother variable to consider.

I’m excited that we’ve added this and it’ll be interesting if we go over time with this, just to see how it may or may not continue to happen. Even if we just ask it on a less frequent basis, even quarterly, just to see the changes, especially as people are getting back into being, or at least preferring schooling to happen completely within the school, what shifts may or may not take place, because I mean more than two thirds, that’s great.

These are great numbers. And it’s really fascinating to put these numbers kind of in the context of what we’ve seen with some of the other choice policies where parents are more favorable towards education savings accounts or ESAs than what I’m seeing here with intra- and inter-district enrollment.

Mike McShane: John Kristof, what do you see in those numbers?

John Kristof: I see things that are encouraging in a lot of ways. And it’s actually interesting that, similar to the other choice policies that we have frequently asked about in our month tracker of ESAs and vouchers and public charter schools, the numbers look most similar to ESAs. So that goes for how popular the program is, with about two-thirds of the whole population that we surveyed, including parents, indicating support, which is about on par with ESAs. But also on the types of groups that favor it the most, that favor both intra- and inter-district choice.

So I would draw attention to, for example, when you look at the group breakdown for support for intra-district open enrollment, Democrats are the most supportive group, with 70% indicating support for intra-district open enrollment. When you look at inter-district open enrollment, if you take out an age category of ages 35 to 54, Democrats are also the most favorable to inter-district open enrollment. I think that’s obviously very interesting from a political perspective. You know, Republicans are very favorable in both cases as well.

And I think it’s important to keep inter- and intra-district open enrollment in mind because the more conversations I have with people about school choice, which is not a term that’s necessarily familiar to every person in the country, which is something that you see in our SIA surveys as well, inter- and intra-district open enrollment is something that just a lot of people don’t think about and they don’t think of it as a school choice policy necessarily. Based on my experience, I think that’s largely in part because we have a tendency to assume that what we experience is the norm. And I don’t know what kind of psychological heuristic that is, but a lot of people just experience whatever form of public school choice that they have in their district and kind of assume that’s how schools work.

So they might have inter- or intra-district open enrollment and then be really surprised when they hear that other states or other areas don’t have this option, or the opposite. This was kind of me, coming from Illinois and then moving to Indiana, thinking that restrictions on intra- and inter-district open enrollment was the norm absolutely everywhere, and that’s the only way that public school systems work. And in fact there are other, dare I say, better ways of doing it through these open enrollment processes.

So I think seeing the popularity of these programs, and not even a program, but just a way of structuring your district schools and enrollment there, seeing how much it makes sense to people I think is really important, especially if you’re introducing people to the idea of choice generally,

Drew Catt: It’s really fascinating. Like even here in Indianapolis, knowing who or who does not have school-age children attending Indianapolis public schools. Because if you just say, talking with family members, “Oh, we got our Enroll Indy lottery results for our son last week.” And they were like, “Wait, what’s that?” “Well, we have to sign in, fill out this application, and rank order our schools.” They’re like, “Oh, you just don’t go to the school that you’re assigned to?” I’m like, “Well, that’s what you get if you don’t fill out the form. The default is still the way that you knew about it. However that there’s this amazing thing where you can actually choose what school you want. And I’m going to say that I’m a big proponent because my son got into the Butler University Lab School, which is a magnet school.”

So of course I’m going to be in favor, but it’s also like even my dad who lives a county away, growing up I didn’t know what a magnet school is. So even educating my family members on what open enrollment policies are and what they mean, it feels good to be doing the job one person at a time every now and then.

Mike McShane: Well look, I mean, you couldn’t have given me a better transition because the last question that I want us to talk about is this question where we asked about why people support or don’t support school choice. Now we specifically asked about Education Savings Accounts in here. So we took a sort of two-part question where we asked people, do they support or not support them, and then we gave them the opportunity in a few words to explain why or why not.

So maybe, Drew, if this had been an open enrollment question, would’ve been, “Hey, my kid got into a magnet school,” even though I do know that you have many other reasons for supporting these policies. But let me throw it to you, right? So as you look at these answers, when we see of the support, we polled about 2,200 people, obviously in our polls, we continue to find lots of people support. So 1,893 people indicated that they supported the program. The top three responses were freedom of choice and options, better school, better education, or just general positive sentiments.

And then we look at the opposition, I think 307 people said that they oppose these programs. The top three, at least of top three answers that were directly given, 10% of folks said that they need more information, 8% sort of, again to what you were just talking about, that they don’t have children or they’re just not interested. And the third is the worry that it would raise taxes or cost money. But those are just kind of the top ones. When you looked at these, does anything stand out to you?

Drew Catt: Honestly, the thing that jumps out massively to me is of those, when asked why they oppose, “Why do you oppose this?” They’re like, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have an opinion. I just don’t like it.”

Mike McShane: Yeah. So as you said, 50% of people who said no, they said that they opposed this, the single largest category by a country mile, 50% said that they don’t know or just didn’t have an opinion, but they just didn’t like it.

Drew Catt: Right. Which I think adds in to the 10% that say they need more information. And if you add those together, that’s like 60% that they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know.” Maybe the better option if we were to force people to respond was, “I just don’t know enough about it.” But yeah. I don’t know any other really thing that exists that you would have half of the people that oppose something have no idea why they oppose it. Even thinking about sports. Yeah. Like I can ask any Michigan fan why they don’t like Ohio State and they can immediately rattle off five to 10 different reasons. And some of them even specific calls and specific games. I can’t really think of anything else. Why do you support or oppose Russia going into Ukraine? People know why they oppose or support it.

So it really is fascinating. It makes me want to like comb through other polls and see if they’re all are any other issues that people oppose and they just don’t know why they’re in opposition. I think there’s also some part of human psychology to parse out here as to like, “Oh, I associate this one thing with something negative somebody once said, so then I incorporate that into my own worldview.”

Mike McShane: Just bad vibes, man, just bad vibes.

John Kristof: So I did the napkin math here. And by my calculations, if you take into account the 50% of people who oppose school choice and declined to explain why, or give an indication as to why. Take that percentage, add the people who say that they oppose it because they don’t know enough about it, they need more information, 10%. If you add the 8% of the people who oppose and say that they oppose school choice because they don’t care about presumably education policy broadly because they don’t have children. It’s like, if that’s your reason to be a little difficult to convince you, I suppose. I’ll come back to you when you have kids.

So that is 68% of people who oppose school choice who are just kind of maybe like not in the game. They’re either hard to reach or they’re actually exactly the people who you want to reach because they just don’t know enough about the issue. It just doesn’t strike them, right, for whatever reason.

So if you want to take out those people and leave the people who maybe have a thought-out reason for why they oppose school choice, you’re left with like 32% of the 15% of people who oppose school choice have a reason to why. So if I’m doing this math right, 32% times 15%, that is less than 5% of people who we surveyed about school choice have a direct reason why they oppose school choice.

That is a very low number. And I think that you have to do a lot of work to get there as I just demonstrated. But I feel like that’s a number that we should keep in mind that there may be opposition to all sorts of political issues, but not everyone opposes it for the same reason. And I think this is just a signal that the opposition is soft opposition, if that makes sense. And that suggests that maybe a lot of this opposition is just by association.

The one further thing that I would want to add that came to my mind is when you look at the last several years of our Schooling in America survey, the percentage of people who oppose ESAs have been fairly consistent for the last few years, like consistently low. A lot of the growth in ESA popularity that we’ve seen comes from fewer people not knowing what ESAs are, not having an opinion on ESAs. So that kind of suggests that as more people become aware of what school choice is, or what ESAs are, it makes sense to them.

So these two things combined I think is just a really strong signal that there is still a lot more potential out there to win people over on school choice issues. Maybe for some of them, they can only be interested in caring when they have kids. We all have our capacities and limits, I understand that. But there’s a huge opportunity to educate people about school choice and trust that it will make sense to a lot of them.

Drew Catt: The takeaway that I heard there, John, is that at least for those that are listening, that are involved in school choice advocacy, that two out of three individuals who oppose school choice can be converted to supporters if educated and given more information, tentatively.

John Kristof: That’s why you’re here, to say in two sentences what I said in like three minutes. So that’s it. That’s the takeaway,

Mike McShane: My reaction to it. See I’m sort of two minds. So the optimist in me agrees with you, John. And I look at those things, I’m like, “Oh wow.” Like there aren’t that many specific objections. And there’s sort of two ways of looking at that even, which is to say, well, if people have specific objections that we think are untrue, maybe by educating them and saying, “Oh wait, the number three one was that it raises taxes.” It’s like, “Well, that’s not true. That doesn’t happen.” We can sort of educate people as that, but maybe that’s a proxy for just having more kind of ideological views that they’re just not going to change their minds on that. And that’s fair enough. And as you highlighted, that’s a very small percentage of people.

I don’t know, like with just the general bad vibes, right? If it’s not sort of based in specific things, like how you change someone just having a bad vibe about something. It could be interesting if these things replicate in the future. It might be fun to get someone on here who works in sort of marketing or branding or something that gets like how to just develop, I keep using vibes, which I don’t know whether that makes me sound old or young, probably old. If people just have like a bad vibe about Coca-Cola or something, do people just kind of stick with that or do you do something to change it? That is something for the future.

Drew, John, super fun talking with you all today. I’m so glad that we actually were able to work in some of these new questions. It’ll be interesting to see, I think, as both of y’all said, some of those open enrollment numbers on some of these questions as well. I think we’re going to continue asking them. So it’ll be interesting to see how they trend over time.

All I can do is thank the both of you. I also want to thank Jacob Vinson is listening to this podcast and he is our usual producer, and I know this is happening under his watchful eye. But he wanted to make sure to tell me we actually have a new person editing this podcast to whom we can only apologize. Eve Elliot, who I think is interning with us at EdChoice right now, and is taking the reins of trying to make us sound coherent. Talk about getting thrown into the deep end as an intern. I promise you, you will have better jobs at EdChoice than making all of this make sense. But thank you, Eve. Thank you, Jacob. And thank you to of you who are listening. Looking forward to talking to you again next month with our new findings. And continue to listen here for the next edition of EdChoice Chats.