Ep. 350: School Surveys – Kansas Private School Survey

December 1, 2022

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of State Relations Jordan Zakery and Research Analyst John Kristof speak with James Franko from the Kansas Policy Institute to discuss the findings from the new Kansas private school survey.

Jordan Zakery: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. Today, we have James Franko from the Kansas Policy Institute. We also have John Kristof from our own research team. What we really want to discuss today are findings from our new Kansas private school survey.

John, I want to first kick it to you. Can you tell us a little bit about the key findings and a little bit of the background of this survey and how it came together?

John Kristof: Yeah, thanks Jordan. So this was a very interesting survey that we put together alongside a number of different Kansas partners and notably the Kansas Policy Institute. Overall, what we’re looking for here is the relationship between how participants in Kansas’ Tax Credit Scholarship Program compare to those families who are not participating in that TCS program, and if there’s anything that we can learn from that.

We know that from the survey, that satisfaction with the program is pretty high at 77%, and a majority of parents who are participating in the program say that they are more satisfied with their children’s current schools than they were with the previous school that they were attending before they used the program, which there’s an argument that that’s the main thing, or at least like the core thing that you’re looking for when you’re trying to provide school choice options, is you’re trying to provide a better experience. However parents view it, whatever they prioritize, you want them to have a better experience and be more satisfied with their school than they were before. That is the goal.

We also noted a couple other major points for me is that two-thirds of the parents who are participating in this program said that their children would be attending a public school if they were not able to receive the scholarship, which is pretty significant. It’s something that you hear in a lot of hearings about school choice programs, and just in the public discourse about it is a worry that it’s only going to be going to people who would be paying the entirety of private school tuition anyway. And whether that’s a relevant argument or not, we know from our survey that for a pretty sizable majority of families who are participating in the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, they don’t think that’s true and they would be attending their local publicly districted school if they weren’t able to receive the scholarship.

We also asked a number of different questions about what parents prioritize in their schools. And that’s a kind of question that we ask in a lot of other surveys that we do. So it’s nice to be able to see these kinds of priority questions for Tax Credit Scholarship parents in Kansas, and just see how they compare to their peers within the state, but then also national trends. And similarly to other trends that we see, we know that they prioritize a safe environment most highly. That’s a pretty common thing that we see in a lot of the surveys that we do. Although, something like locational convenience and there’s a lot of research backing for the importance of that. And then just academic performance, we’re pretty close second and third priorities there.

There’s a lot of findings here that we’ll get through throughout the talk here, I’m sure. And of course, it’s all there on the brief, but those were just some key findings and why we at EdChoice are considering this an important thing to look at and learn from.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, thanks John. James, tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you’ve been doing in Kansas around choice. And if anything about this brief and about this survey, if anything stuck out in particular to you and your work in Kansas.

James Franko: Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate it. Any time I have the opportunity to do something for EdChoice or work with you all again, it’s always a pleasure. Leslie Heiner came to a meeting in Kansas, I think it was in the summer of 2010, which is when I started at KPI, and kind of helped us build and engage a couple of new partners for our School of Choice coalition. And that’s been a noble slog over the last 12 years since then, but it was in 2014 that that coalition, the work that EdChoice helped us do and that a lot of folks gathered around here in Kansas to get a Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is what we’re talking about today into law.

It was attached to a kind of a must-pass funding bill, which is typically how reforms happen in Kansas. But at that point, it was a very small pilot program. We expanded it a little bit in 2017. And then in 2021, expanded it to where it sits today where something around 40, 50-odd percent of the student body in Kansas is eligible. Even if there’s still caps on the programs, which I’m sure we’ll still talk about, but it’s up to 185% of federal poverty. So good working class, middle class families for whom private school would be an incredible sacrifice, if not completely out of reach.

So as far as the findings go, this is why I love working with EdChoice or other people on our team who have the numbers gurus for me who’ve really sunk their teeth into the findings, but it demonstrates something we already knew to a certain extent. And it’s that educational choice gives parents agency where they are empowered to act on their kids’ behalf. And we already see this in some places, like lots of other states, we have school choice in Kansas for the families that can afford it, they can move to the house they want to, they can move to the neighborhood or the school district, they can go private school, my family homeschools because frankly we have that flexibility but a lot of families don’t.

So to see just a choice given to people and then they can take ownership of their kids’ educations and that 75% of those people are satisfied with this. It’s empowering, it’s exciting because it leans into the idea that if we give people choices, they’ll take advantage of them and make what they feel is a better choice for their family and for their kids.

Jordan Zakery: So James, you had mentioned that the program in Kansas, the Tax Credit Scholarship program, had seen a recent expansion. For our listeners who are not in Kansas, can you tell them a little bit about the program or even for our listeners in Kansas who are unfamiliar, can you tell them a little bit about the current school choice program in Kansas and what’s happened with it over the last few years?

James Franko: So when we started out, it was essentially a pilot program in 2014 where it was the lowest income kids who also attended one of the 100 worst performing public schools in the state were eligible. And that wasn’t worst performing schools based on my analysis or whatever, it was determined by the State Department of Education. So then fast forward seven years in 2021 there was a big mega education reform package that included education savings accounts and expansion of the tax credit and the whole bit. By the time that ultimately became law because of how laws are made and the legislative sausage making the ESA came out. But the tax credit, like I said, expanded it to 185% of federal poverty, not just the free lunch eligible, which is our definition for at-risk kids in Kansas is free lunch. So it expanded it to 185% and then it completely got rid of the failing school’s requirement as well.

It capped at a K-8. The way it functions right now is any child in the state of Kansas who is eligible for free or reduced price lunch and is in grades kindergarten through eighth is eligible to receive the program if they were previously enrolled in a public school. So it’s only been in the last call it 12 months that you’ve really seen the program kind of grow from this pilot program that’s pretty small, hard to reach pool of potential kids and families into something that’s growing that’s got some weight behind it. And now we’ve seen that increase with the number of kids who are participating and the number of tax credits that the SGOs are able to offer to people to support these families in need.

Jordan Zakery: So wow, we’re seeing more kids participating, we’re seeing more tax credits. So it sounds like there’s a demand for this program and that’s been a wonderful resource to families. John, from the survey that’s been conducted between our organizations, it sounds like from our conversations earlier that you’ve been able to see that there’s also a reflection in this piece about the demand for this program. Can you go into some of the findings?

John Kristof: Yeah, I think that’s a really important takeaway from certainly all the data that we collected from people who don’t currently participate in the Tax Credit Scholarship program. So one of the questions that we ask, and this is for the segment of people who are not currently participating in the program, why have you not used it? And this is consistent with surveys that we’ve done in Ohio and surveys that we’ve done in Arizona. But a major reason for some groups, the main reason that people have not participated in the program is because they didn’t know that it existed. For 48% of traditional public school parents, they said they were just unaware of the program. This was a select all that apply. So this will total over a hundred percent. 48% of public school parents said it was because they were unaware of the program. The next highest for public school parents was 37% said that their family just doesn’t qualify.

And then third, at 25% is I’m happy with the school my child attends. Which is great. But hopefully, that should signify to you that there’s a very large portion of people who didn’t know that the program existed but now that they know the program existed. Because now through taking the survey, a lot more people know that the Kansas Credit Scholarship program exists. Is this something that people are interested in at all were they income eligible? So this is also a question that we asked, if you did qualify for the educational choice program. We mentioned earlier in the survey what the income requirement is, so they know about that. But if you did qualify or the award amount was enough to cover the tuition and expenses, how likely would you be to enroll your child in the program? And a majority of, so this is public school parents, private school parents who don’t participate, and homeschool parents as well.

55% said they would be very likely or extremely likely to participate in this program. So that is a majority. Add another 22% who say that they’re moderately likely and you have more than three out of four parents who are at least moderately likely to enroll their child in the program were they to fit the eligibility requirements. So as it stands, even with the expansion that Kansas saw, an expansion is better than no expansion for sure. It’s still one of the most restrictive school choice programs in the country. Certainly, as far as when you’re looking at the programs that have an income eligibility requirement, Kansas went from dead last to tied for last, which is better than it could otherwise be. But there’s really room for a lot of improvement. And when you ask parents about would you look for other options, the answer is usually yes. It’s great for the parents who are in a school that works for them and/or they have the resources to attend the school that they want. But when you look at a survey that’s not necessarily most parents. So we really need to be asking whether our policy is reflective of serving the people in our communities.

James Franko: Yeah, I think that’s right John and if I may Jordan jump in a little bit. That’s the argument that we’ve made whenever we’ve tried to expand these programs, which in kind of fits and starts legislatively, right? It’s always talking about there is demand for these. I’ve got reams of data showing how some of our traditional public schools, despite the best effort of teachers and administrators and whatnot, just don’t fit for every kid. You’ve got roughly a half a million public school students in Kansas. As you all know, most people wouldn’t be listening to this podcast if they weren’t engaged in EdChoice specifically or just education reform generally. Education is one of the only systems where we expect one system to serve everybody equally well despite magnet schools or some of those other types of things. So talking about giving families more options, giving them different ways.

Yes, the tax credits are important, but it’s not just staying there with tax credits. It’s course choice, it’s open enrollment, it’s education savings accounts that we’ve run over the last several years legislatively, all trying to point to that idea of what I talked about at the beginning. And what this poll demonstrates is it’s about giving families agency to pick what’s right for their kid. I’ve got three kids and each one of them is a little bit different even though they’re all raised in the same house by the same family, this kind of thing. And if those kiddos are that different in where they succeed or where they need a little bit of additional help or whatever, you can only imagine what it’s like across an entire state of a half million kids. So anything we can do to make it easier for families to find the right fit is certainly a step in the right direction. And for the overwhelming majority of kids that may still be in a public school, but it’s about giving families that choice to find the right fit.

Jordan Zakery: Well James, you mentioned the importance of agency and so that parents can choose the best option for their child. We have a couple more sections that are actually along those lines and I think that it would be really important for us to cover before we wrap up. And those sections are our findings on sentiment about parental involvement and also our findings on perspectives of school climate that parents have. And so John, I want to turn to you real quick so you can start out and share some of your thoughts and some of the interesting findings that maybe were different than expected that came up for the sentiment about parental involvement. John, let’s go ahead and hear what your thoughts are and what was in line with what we’ve seen in other states and what was a little bit different or surprising.

John Kristof: So there’s a number of different ways that we asked parents of all school types, how they feel that their choice, that their school that they send their child to, how does their decision to send their child there impact how they relate to their child’s education. And some of these were kind of in line of what we expected. Then there were some results that we didn’t. So some pretty obvious one, maybe it’s obvious, maybe it’s not. But ones that definitely align with our expectations when we say, does participation or sending your child to the most recent school give you peace of mind that your child’s needs are being met? TCS parents were eight percentage points more likely to say yes to that than traditional public school parents. Does it make you feel like you’re more in charge of your child’s education? Nine percentage points higher for TCS parents versus traditional public school parents.

But then we also asked, have you learned more about what your child needs or how your child learns? Are you more involved in your child’s education? And those results were no different or even a little bit lower than traditional public school parents. Whereas I think in a lot of cases you would expect that to be higher. But certainly when it comes to senses of agency, there’s a noticeable significant difference there. Another element too is, this kind of goes back to our sense of satisfaction and how important is just your perspective on what your school’s doing for your child, being important for program success. We also ask a bunch of these statement questions, do you agree or disagree just about school climate generally? So we ask a question about does your child have a good relationship with their teachers and TCS parents eight percentage points more likely to say yes compared to traditional public schools.

Is your child safe at school? Nine percentage points greater. Does the school staff make you the parent feel welcome at school? Seven percentage points higher. Do you have a good relationship with your child’s teachers, 10 percentage points higher. Does your school use appropriate disciplining strategies? 10 percentage points higher. Does school staff seek your input on school programs or events or things like that? 19 percentage points higher for TCS parents compared to traditional public school parents.

So when we ask kind of point blank, if you feel more involved in your child’s education and questions like that, do you know more about what your child needs, we maybe don’t see the differences that we would expect between participating parents and non-participating parents. But that said, when you get into some more detailed questions about what your experience actually is with your child’s school compared to those who are not participating in the program, there are some noticeable differences in positive directions. And again, I got to imagine that if more people were able to participate in the program, if more people knew about the program, they’re eligible to participate and they just have not known about it because it hasn’t been shown to them. They could be more confident in their child’s safety at school, they could have a better relationship with their staff and teachers and things like that. So there’s just a lot of room for opportunity I think.

James Franko: Yeah, absolutely. On one hand, I feel like we should be heartened that some of those numbers are as high as they are for kiddos who go to a traditional public school. If the goal is a good quality education, safe environment, those types of things. Was a Kansas taxpayer, even if we don’t send our kids to the public schools in our neighborhood or-

John Kristof: No one actively wants kids to have a bad time, you know?

James Franko: Right, right. That’s exactly right. But I mean, and you know this, the way some of these legislative debates typically turn out is everybody’s at 20 paces at high noon or what have you, and that’s not the way it needs to be. People are generally pretty satisfied with their traditional public schools and we should be happy about that. Because it means that people are satisfied even if where our argument would be is, but it could be better somewhere else and that somewhere else may be a different public school or whatever.

But again, you’re talking about the peace of mind. Eight percentage points, higher 69% for tax credit kids and parents, and 61% for the traditional public schools, the small sample that included non-tax credit kids who were in private school were a little bit higher still, but we should be happy that those numbers are as good as they are across the board and then be casting a vision for “look at how much better it could be if we had more choice”. One of the things that jumped out to me, and we have a former public school teacher who does some work for us here in Kansas, and he’s written about the survey as well, and he’d spent a lot of his career as a math intervention as to an urban elementary school. One of the things that has jumped out to both of us was the feeling of safety that is associated with families using the program.

We typically, and KPIs as guilty as this is anybody, we focus an awful lot on the academics of choice. But if you’re just baseline worried about the place where you’re sending your kid every morning when they wake up and you give them their lunch and pack their backpack and stuff, and you’re just, even if you’re like, “It’s probably going to be okay.” Like as a parent, even when I set my kid on a bike right around the block, I’m like, “It’s probably going to be okay and this is healthy for their development”, but you’re still a little apprehensive about it.

So the fact that families are just feeling more safe in a private tax credit school, if perception is reality, we want them to have that baseline sense of parental involvement. Some of the questions, findings that you’ve teased out there a second ago, John, about student safety that they can talk to their teachers and those types of things, that’s just going to again, just make everybody feel engaged about going to school. We all remember when we were third graders, we didn’t want to wake up and go, but hopefully that environment just feels better for everybody involved, even though, like we said, some of the findings are that it’s certainly not horrible in our public schools, but it’s imagine how much better this could be if we had this program, let alone more robust choice in lots of different policy areas as well.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, James, I think you hit on something is that people want choice for many reasons. Oftentimes it is academic, but safety, that’s a huge reason to want choice. And I think that goes to the agency. It’s giving the parents that ability to make that decision and you also hit on public schools are a choice too. They’re an option amongst private, charter, home educations. We’re seeing this unbundling where people are able to get what they need from different types of schooling and different resources to meet their child’s needs. Going forward it’s just awesome seeing in Kansas, seeing that this agency has led to improved satisfaction for parents. But it’s also great to see that there’s satisfaction with the public schools as well, and that we can continue to bring parents more satisfaction. And it’s this idea that choice is not an “or” conversation, it’s an “and” conversation. It’s really giving parents that extra tool in their tool bag to give their child what they need.

As we wrap up today, I just want to say thank you to both James and John for their involvement in this podcast and to the Kansas Policy Institute for their involvement and their help in this survey. Surveys like this don’t happen without local partners. And so for our audience, we want to thank you guys for listening in. Please jump on our next episode of EdChoice Chats and if you have any feedback, as always, please reach out and let us know. And that goes for questions too. We’re happy to get in contact with you and answer any of those questions you may have.