Ep. 342: Schooling in America 2022

September 22, 2022

It’s the 10 year anniversary of our Schooling in America survey series and the research team shares some takeaways that were most interesting to each of them.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and you are joining us on a momentous occasion, and that is the release of our annual Schooling in America survey, and now, that would be enough of an occasion because it only happens once a year and it has very interesting data on what’s going on with public opinion related to schools, but it is even doubly momentous because this is the 10th annual Schooling in America survey that we have administered, and we have this wonderful opportunity to look back on the past decade of public opinion and education. Look at trends, look at changes, look at things that have changed, look at things that have stayed the same. And so listen, we are not going to be able to cover all of the past 10 years of public opinion across all of the questions that we ask in this podcast.

Please head over to our website, www.edchoice.org to get the full breakdown of everything. We’re going to just try and hit some highlights today. Maybe do the kind of movie trailer version of the Schooling in America survey to get you to dive into the deeper results. I am joined by basically all of my colleagues today. It’s so great. We’re doing this on Zoom and I can see basically everyone, John Kristof, Colyn Ritter, Drew Catt, Paul DiPerna, Marty Leuken, and myself, the guts of the research and thought leadership team. We’re missing one or two folks, but we definitely have a quorum for the team to have opinions be shared, but I want to start with our fearless leader. Paul DiPerna, you have been at the center of the Schooling in America survey since its inception, and I was wondering if you could give, for folks that maybe this is the first year that they found out about it, could you maybe give the kind of thumbnail history of Schooling in America, and how we got to where we are today?

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, sure. Thanks Mike. It’s great to be here with all you guys. 10 years ago, flown, and especially the last few years for everybody that has been flying by, and we had been polling at EdChoice. And then at the time, we were known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. We had a different name. We had done a lot of polling at the state level for a few years and come 2012, we’re thinking about, oh, we should try to do some, there’s some national polls trending polls that were out there, like Education Next. They had their poll by that time for about five or six years, Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup had their series going back to the early 70s, but we saw an opportunity for a few different reasons to do some national deep dives, particularly around school choice, educational choice issues, which is part of our mission and our area of focus within the K-12 education, to do some deep dives, to start some trends about, at the time school vouchers, education savings accounts were just at such an early stage in Arizona at the time.

There were some national polls that had touched on school choice issues, but not quite as deeply as we would like to better understand where the public and parents stand on those issues. And then also, at the time around 2011, 12, 13, we just saw a tremendous momentum in the school choice landscape across states. Arizona launched the first ESA program. Indiana had passed a robust statewide school voucher program called The Choice Scholarship Program, and other states like North Carolina had launched a school voucher program. There’s just a lot of activity and momentum around our core issues and focus areas, so we thought it was a good time. No Child Left Behind was kind of fading out at that point. Just for some context then, Common Core was very much at a fever pitch, particularly in states and local school districts, so that was a hot topic, as well as people can recall, parent trigger policies were being tried out in some places. I believe it was LA Unified and around St. Louis.

Those developments continue to have downstream implications for school politics that exist today around parent organizing, implications for testing and accountability, which we’ve asked questions on, so we launched SIA in the spring of 2013, Drew Catt, our Director of State Research and Special Projects who’s still with us today, that was around the time when he just got started at then, The Friedman Foundation, and our team has grown to do bigger and better things because of all the work that you guys do since then in the last 10 years. Some things have changed. When we started Schooling in America, we were doing our interviews only by phone and as the polling and survey research industry and fields of research really started to evolve, we tried to keep up as best we could, so we moved to a mixed methods approach in 2017, so we would do some interviews by phone, but now mostly today, we do most of the interviews by online survey.

Some things have changed, but there are about a dozen questions though that we have continued to ask since that first survey in 2013 where we have some trends, so that’s something that maybe we’ll get into a little bit here on the podcast. It’s highlighted. Drew, John and Colyn have done an excellent job with putting together our report this year and highlighting some of those trends, and one other thing to note about Schooling in America is that every year we try to have some type of special feature or focus area and sometimes that would mean looking at timely topics like Common Core or accountability, but also, looking at the opinions of certain populations that really may not have as great a voice in public policy debates, so you’re looking at opinions of the small town rural folks, school parents, parents in Latino and Black communities, millennials as their cohorts started to grow and enter into the workforce and becoming young parents.

Looking at different topics or different populations this year, a special focus area is looking around funding and school spending and some of the trade offs, policy trade offs that come with school spending, and we thought that it was a good moment in time as we’re coming out of the pandemic, and there’s a lot of talk about the ARP – American Rescue Plan funds and how they will be spent, how school districts and schools will be held accountable for that kind of spending in the next few years, and we thought that looking at some of the trade offs behind spending and where the public and parents see those trade offs would be helpful to just inform the public conversation around school funding and school spending.

Mike McShane: Yes, I’m so glad that you brought that up. That was definitely the deep dive area for this year, and we are lucky to have on the podcast today, our school finance guru, I think I haven’t been watching it, but I think Game of Thrones got fired back up again, and our master of coin, our person who knows all things money, Dr. Marty Leuken. Marty, I’m really interested to know your thoughts on these. We asked some really interesting questions. I know you are so knowledgeable about school finance formulas, how it affects school choice, but just as you look at public opinion related to school finance, what do you see?

Marty Lueken: As Paul mentioned, this year we blocked off a part of the survey to ask these questions related to school funding and school finance, and I’d like to lead off with, what I think is the marquee question or really the marquee fiscal question about what we view as an organization, as the gold standard for funding K-12. There are lots of ways that states fund K-12 public schools and education choice, and one way that states could fund K-12 education is to do this. They could collect both the state and local revenues at the state level, and then they could distribute those funds to families based on student need, so that they could use those funds at the educational setting of their choosing. Basically, the state collects these funds and then all the funds would flow through a funding formula, a student weighted funding formula.

Some students that might be from low income families, they have special needs, or English language learners, for example, they would receive more funds than other students. And then, the setting that the families could choose could be a district school, it could be a public charter school, a private religious or non-religious school, homeschool, or other approved education providers such as tutors. We asked parents if they favor or if they oppose their state having this unified system of K-12 funding where dollars would follow students to the educational setting of their families choosing, and when you look at school parents, 71% of the school parents that we surveyed indicated that they strongly or somewhat favor a system of funding where funding is based on student need. Just 15% strongly or somewhat opposed this. That’s really strong support for this type of system of funding.

We dig a bit more into the data and we see some interesting things. There are some notable differences among the subgroups of respondents. So for example, we find that there’s higher support among parents that have children in private schools and charter schools, compared to parents with kids in traditional public schools and home schools. Support is still high though, for parents who have kids in traditional public schools and home schools. I think the percentage of those groups that support this system of funding is 67% and 69%, still really high levels of support. We also found that urban and suburban parents were also more likely to support this backpack funding model, if you will, compared to parents in rural communities, but still support among rural parents is high. It’s 62%.

We also observed higher rates of support among younger parents compared to older parents, and finally, parents who identified as Democrat, which is 77% of the parents that we surveyed that identified Democrat. They were also more likely to support the system of funding compared to parents who identified as Republican or Independent. We asked lots of other questions as well. As I mentioned, this is I think the highlight for the fiscal section, but we ask questions about trade off preferences between class sizes and teacher salaries, how parents would like to see the massive amount of federal stimulus, which districts are currently receiving since the pandemic, how they would like to see those funds spent. We also ask questions like where folks get their information about school spending or school finance. These are all the issue, unless you want me to, I won’t dig that deep into some of these.

Mike McShane: No, that’s great. That’s all super interesting. Again, for folks, if you’re especially into these fiscal questions, you can always check out the full report, PowerPoint deck, everything, make sure to dig into it. Well now, Drew, as Paul mentioned, you have been involved in this since its inception as well, starting, I believe as a lowly data verifier, and now working your way up to really guiding the direction of this survey. I’d be interested, especially now, since you’ve been able to see the whole sweep of this, are there some findings that really stand out to you? Are there things that you see that maybe they’ve changed or maybe they haven’t changed, but what is your big takeaway, something that you thought was really interesting or important?

Drew Catt: Thanks Mike. For me, honestly, the thing that stood out, isn’t one of the questions that we’ve been asking for the entirety of Schooling in America. It’s one that I had to start asking last year, which is, we’ve always asked, are you aware of, or are you familiar, how familiar are you with vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and then we added on education savings accounts, but we realized that we never had just a baseline school choice question. How familiar are you based on what you’ve heard from others with school choice? In 2021, keeping in mind that this is after the pandemic and parents started finding out about these various other school options and started researching themselves.

In 2021, 24% of the parents that were surveyed had never heard of school choice, so about one in four. This year, that dropped to 17% or about one in six. That’s a big drop of about seven percentage points in parents that have now heard of school choice. I think that shows, as our CEO, Robert, mentioned in an article that, there’s this wave of school choice that is happening, and I think just based on that increase in awareness alone, that we’re seeing that hold true within the Schooling in America poll.

Mike McShane: For sure. Absolutely. Now, Colyn, I don’t want to say how old you were when this started, you and John here, because I feel like, I got to be honest, us talking about how young you and John are, has become a kind of podcast trope. I don’t want to keep leaning into that podcast trope, but I do bring it up, especially since you two will be able to answer this because part of the early years of the survey coincided with the ends of your careers in K-12 education. It’s interesting that you’re sort of contained in the data there in the beginning. You were in the schools that people were thinking about, so given that perspective of just how your personal trajectory has aligned with this, were there any numbers that stood out to you that you thought were particularly interesting?

Colyn Ritter: Hey, we can keep talking about how young I am as many podcasts as you like. Drew-

Mike McShane: That is the correct attitude to have, Colyn. That is the correct attitude.

Colyn Ritter: Absolutely. Birthdays are becoming less fun. We’re getting to that age, but Drew made a funny point. He said in 2013, when he started, he started doing data verification for it, and that was my start to it last year was the 2021 data verification. It’s cool to see that, that’s the ground floor where you start, and it was interesting because I had never seen the type of questions we were talking about and what was measured, and now being more part of the process this year, it was really good to get to see how these questions were formed and where the growth was over the year, but one question that I really found myself looking at more often than not was the prioritizing education issues. Where the general public prioritize certain factors in education versus current school parents and the majority of them and by a wide margin, the number one priority was school safety.

That can go a lot of different ways and it actually reminds me of, it brings me to a piece that Drew has talked about and a little shameless plug there, but he’s talked about the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs within school parents, and he claims that safety is the number one need, and once that is met, then other things can start to grow, but it’s not surprising that school safety is, 54% among the general public and 54% amongst current school parents rank them in their top three. Again, that is not surprising at all. The safety of children is paramount, especially, you would think among parents, but the general public is there as well when it comes to that, but then where it goes next is what I found interesting. School funding is number two among the general public or number three among current school parents and about one third of the general public, and one third of current school parents are ranking them in their top three.

I think that is especially prevalent today because of what Marty said earlier with the funding that they got, especially the aid during COVID and the substantial amounts of money and where it’s going and that’s our whole debate and how the money should follow the families or students rather than the system. There’s a hot debate about school funding, so it’s not surprising that, that’s number two, but what I found interesting was that parental choice and K-12 education, parents were seven percentage points more likely to rank in their top three, so about one in four current school parents have them in their top three parental school choice and education. Whereas, about one in five of the general public had parental choice and K-12 education is one of their top three issues. I don’t think that’s totally surprising, the gap between current school parents and the general public, because it’s validated in several different ways, but one that comes to mind is asking about school choice and who is aware of school choice.

Parents are more aware and it’s not surprising because they’re closer to the issue and the general public may not be, but I think it’s also interesting… I’d like to see, the thing that kept happening in my mind is, where is that number going to go among current school parents? Right now, it’s one in four. School safety is the majority of parents, so one out of every two parents roughly is saying school safety is a top issue, but if I had to wager, I think parental choice in K-12 education will continue to grow, especially if you saw the NAEP report that came out last week and another shameless plug, Mike is about to release a really great post on our blog about it, but for those that are very plugged in, they will know that the NAEP report was very bleak and there was substantial learning loss from 2020 to 2022. Not surprising, the COVID years, it was very rough in the education space and people that are plugged in and especially parents are going to think, how can we make up?

What’s the best route to get back to the progress that we are making pre-COVID, and for those of us who are plugged in and for those of us who believe school choice is the answer, and I think we all can agree on that. That’s a pretty easy claim to make amongst this group, but it is parental choice in education. I truly believe that, and I think a lot more parents will believe that, and when something like the NAEP report comes out where it details substantial learning loss, parents will be looking for options, and if I had to guess, I think that it will be more than one in four parents are prioritizing parental choice. That might jump things, I think it’ll definitely jump COVID precaution action, such as the vaccine, social distancing, as we get further away from COVID it could jump something as broad as curriculum. Who knows? But that’s where I found myself looking at that slide a lot more, but I’m curious to hear what others have to say as well.

Drew Catt: And just to set the general context of more than half of parents saying that school safety was their top priority, this survey was in the field until eight days before Uvalde.

Colyn Ritter: That’s a great point.

Drew Catt: These results are pre-Uvalde.

Colyn Ritter: School safety had jumped, too, and I actually think because of that, like Drew said in his piece that will come out hopefully in the near future, parental choice and school safety should be tied together in a certain… If school safety is in question, that will only drive parental choice higher in the minds. That’s my belief and hopefully we won’t have to talk too much about school safety being in question, but that’s a good point, Drew.

Mike McShane: John Kristof, if you were to point someone, we’re trying to get people to read the whole report here, you’re identifying a finding that you think is interesting and thought provoking. What would be the one that stood out to you?

John Kristof: Obviously just to reiterate, there are a lot of good numbers. Look at it yourself, but to kind of step back from the discussion of diving into the weeds of all this, something that jumps out to me in the context of, there’s a wave of school choice happening right now, given the moments that we’ve been in over the last three years and things like that, high level approach. We’ve asked since the very beginning, if you were to give grades to the local schools in your area, A through F, what would you give them? And we give this to everyone, school parents, and otherwise. I’ll just focus on parents’ responses here, and it doesn’t matter where parents send their kids to school, by the way, it’s just that their parents. This year, parents gave private schools in their area, 72% of them gave A or B grades to the private schools in their local area, how they understand that. 62% gave A or B grades to charter schools. 52% gave A or B grades to public district schools. That’s what we’re looking at this year.

It’s all pretty positive overall, in that all of them are above 50%, but it’s great that we’ve done this survey for so long because we can look at trends. I want to look at, compared to 2018 and 2019, which is between when we changed survey methodology a little bit and we go into that in the report, but after we had changed survey methodology and before COVID happened, private schools, only 49% were getting A or B grades. Public district schools were about the same, 52% in 2018 and 47% in 2019. Same ballpark, charter schools were lower at 39% and 36%. Obviously, COVID happens in 2020, and we see an enormous jump in A or B grades to private schools in the area. By the end of summer, in 2020, the share of parents giving private schools in their local area A or B grades jumps from 49% to 74%. There was a little bit of positivity for public district schools as well, but that was just a four point jump. Charter schools saw a six point jump. The charter schools caught up in the year after in 2021, where they jumped from 42% getting A or B grades to 59%.

Now, we start seeing public district schools declining a little bit. They saw a six point drop instead and private schools maintained the same A or B grades and we more or less saw those trends hold in 2022 as well, the numbers that I mentioned earlier. All that to say, what I’m trying to do is paint a picture for you that you can see in a second in the report, but what you see is, when COVID happens in 2020, as well as a lot of other things happening in 2020, but mainly COVID, there’s a pretty sharp difference in how people start looking at schools, and the question we were asking at that point was, how long is this going to change? Is this a moment or are parents just going to settle back into what was normal before, and we’re a few iterations of SIA into a COVID world now, or a world where we know COVID is in the air to some degree, and we’re maintaining these levels of, parents are more receptive and positive about these alternative forms of education, alternatives to traditional public district schools.

Public district schools are kind of in about the same place that they have been the entire time we’ve asked this survey. Going back to 2013, it’s been within a similar range. What I would tell people looking at our report is keep this in mind because a lot of parents have shifted how they think about education, and it’s really important to pay attention to why, because we have a lot of questions to dive into that, and if you’re a policy maker and you’re interested in how to deliver a good education service to families in your community, it’s important to pay attention to these difference in approaches and perspectives and sentiments towards different kinds of schools because if you expand choice in K-12 education, you’re expanding access to these schools that people think more highly of, and that’s not just privileged White, suburban parents. This is across demographics to different degrees. That’s where I would start. That’s the high level approach that I think is really interesting to pay attention to.

Mike McShane: Well, I’ll very briefly say mine. One of the things that I find interesting in our data in some ways is the dog that didn’t bark. If you look at one of the first questions that we talk about, that’s just the direction of K12 education, in 2013, talking to the general population, 62% of people thought that the K12 education system was on the wrong track. In 2022, in the 10th year of this survey, it is 61%. If you think about all the stuff that happened between those two dates inside and outside of the American education system and the numbers are basically the same. Now, right direction changed a little bit, so in 2013 it was 26%. By 2022, it had gone up to 34%, but again, for a lot of stuff happening, not a lot of change, and I think similarly, when we look at school parents, school parents tend to be a little bit more optimistic about schools.

They’re more optimistic than the general population, but a majority of them are still pessimistic if that makes sense, but again, the trends are very similar. 2014, when we first asked school, parents is 54% of parents thought that schools were on the wrong track. 2022, 52%. Again, right track changes a little bit. It’s 40% in 2014 on up to 48% in 2022. That’s the right track number, but that’s the thing that I found really interesting, and if you have a chance to actually read the report, there are some hills and valleys, and in the general population, the pandemic clearly had an effect, but then there was mean reversion, that people thought about how public schools worked or schools, I guess in general, K-12 education during the pandemic, then they’re kind of back to their baseline figures.

That’s one of the things that I found really interesting, the kind of baseline against all this other stuff that we talk about are some pretty invariant views, general kind of impressions about the American K-12 education system. Well, look, we could talk about this for a very long time, but what I want to do is… He got to start it, we’re going to have him finish it, our fearless leader of this poll and our team in general. Paul, again, you’ve had this opportunity to look at all of this, see what the results were over time. Do you have any of these maybe big things to sum up or to put a bow on this, some kind of thoughts on the broad sweep of the survey?

Paul DiPerna: Thanks Mike. I think just to follow up what you were highlighting and John, too, with some of those trends and looking back to 2013, 2014, we started to track these trends for the different types of educational choice policies that are out there, and we have seen over the last 10 years, jumps across the board, but maybe counter to a little bit of, maybe some conventional wisdom or narratives that may be out there, but the upward trends started before the pandemic in 2020. It was really around 2016 to 17, 18 when we started to see jumps in favorability. For example, for ESAs, up 12 points among the general public since 2013 vouchers up nine points among the general public, if you look at charter schools up six points since 2013 and then for parents, it’s even more dramatic where you see ESAs are up 19 points since when we first started to poll out parents in the 2014. Looking at vouchers up about five points. We see charter schools, 11 points up over the course of the last decade.

That’s interesting just to see how much growth we have seen and support for the range of school choice policies and types of programs that are out there. One last thing, and it’s kind of the inverse, what we’ve seen, and I believe Drew had touched on this a little while ago, but looking at knowledge and familiarity of these different types of educational choice policies, where we’ve seen those who have said, they’ve never heard of ESAs, they’ve never heard of vouchers, never heard of charter schools. Those numbers have been going down and not just through the pandemic, the last two and a half years, but really those numbers, those trend lines really started to decrease around 2015, 16, so that we’ve seen a 10 point drop from 41% to 31%, those who say they’ve never heard of ESAs. There’s more awareness that started before the pandemic and it’s continued throughout the pandemic the last few years and the same for vouchers down 15 points.

More people have said they have heard of school vouchers, particularly since 2016, and for charter schools, it’s even more dramatic, where when we first started 10 years ago, about more than a third said they had never heard of public charter schools. 36% said that in 2013, and in our most recent wave this year, only 14% said they had never heard of public charter schools. These are encouraging for those of us who are working around informing and educating policy makers, the public, parents in particular, other stakeholders in K-12 education, those are encouraging things, but that we continue. The work still needs to be done and there’s a lot of room for that kind of education and information sharing, and that’s part of our mission as a team and just really appreciate having the chance to do this together in a podcast, talk about this, the work and our experience doing this, and just really attribute to the work that Drew, John, Colyn that you’ve done putting together this report. Marty, too, on the spending and funding questions, and Mike, you always do an awesome job with the podcast hosting, so this is great.

Mike McShane: Well look, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Again, we were not able to cover everything here. This would be like a six hour podcast. It would be like two Joe Rogan podcasts put back together, and I think we would definitely lose everybody by the end of that. You can go to our website, www.edchoice.org, and you can actually see the updated and interactive Schooling in America dashboard by just typing a few more things. www.edchoice.org/SIAdashboard. That’s edchoice.org/SIAdashboard.

You can play around with all of the numbers. You can look at the trends. You can dig into all of these things. I hope we peaked your interest. As always, if you find something interesting in there, you want to chat more about it, all of us are on social media, all of us have email addresses, let us know. It may lead to interesting fodder and conversations in the future. I’d like to thank John Kristof, Colyn Ritter, Marty Leuken, Drew Catt, Paul DiPerna, and as always Jacob Vincent, the editor of this podcast, the producer of it. Thanks so much for joining us and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.