Ep. 381: Schooling in America

August 1, 2023

Mike McShane, Colyn Ritter, and John Kristof talk about what’s inside Schooling in America, including the data that stood out to them the most.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research. And I’m joined on the call today by two good friends and colleagues, John Kristof and Colyn Ritter. And I know this might surprise people. People might say, “What are you guys talking about today? Who?” Yes, we’re talking about polling. We have a new poll out, but this is a special poll. This is not like our monthly tracker that comes out. It is our 11th annual Schooling in America Survey. As the name implies. We’ve been doing this for some time, and I think it was one of the things that actually introduced me to EdChoice. I think probably one of the first publications that I knew that EdChoice did all those many years ago, was this really cool annual survey where you could compare and look at trends over time. There are lots of other people that work in this space, but few have been able to go for as long as we have asking the same sets of questions to be able to do these longer-term trends of American public opinion on important questions of education policy. 

But I think it might make sense to start because frequent listeners to this podcast are probably used to our monthly tracker podcast, which we do in connection with Morning Consult. We publish these nationally representative polls every month. But we’re doing something different here, Schooling in America. So I gave one thing away that one is a poll that we do every month and one is a poll that we do once a year, but maybe John, if you could start by just explaining how Schooling in America is different from the other polling that we do? 

John Kristof: Sure. In a lot of ways, I don’t want to distract from what we do with our monthly public opinion polling, but there are some things that Schooling in America does that I think offers a lot of interesting insight that the monthly tracker cannot. The monthly tracker is nimble and the Schooling in America Survey I think is thorough, and the fact that it’s been done for 11 years also provides a lot of insight. So for one, Schooling in America is a mixed method survey, so more than a fifth of respondents have taken response over the phone as well. And one of the classic issues with survey research is the challenges of relying exclusively on web-based surveys because there’s a certain population who you reach by doing solely online surveys and you can get a little bit more representativeness of the population when you add phone as well. 

There’s a Spanish version of the survey that people can take that can also be done over the phone, which is a great service and also helps the representativeness of the survey. We do have a different partner that helps us through this process, Braun research as opposed to Morning Consult for the monthly public opinion tracker. And we’ve had a relationship with Braun for a really long time. 

But as far as, there’s a lot of methodological things that we could go into, but it ultimately all comes down to the same type of thing where we have a nationally representative sample of about 1200 Americans in general. And then we’ve over sampled for school parents because their responses are especially important for us. And we also have quotas that we met for reaching the African American population and Hispanic population to make sure that their responses and any kind of cross tab breakout that we do is representative of those groups as well. So there’s a lot of thoroughness that you can have by looking at this Schooling in America survey. And of course anytime that you can look 11 years into the past with the same question and compare it to results now, this is really valuable insight that I think Schooling in America offers. 

Mike McShane: So I think we actually have a cool opportunity. And so for folks listening, we’re obviously not going to be able to get into every result. You can check it out on the website. Our design folks built this really cool interactive interface basically where you can look at a dashboard. See, I almost forgot. I wanted to call it interface. A dashboard, that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, where you can kind of toggle through all of the different questions and the graphics pop up right in front of you. So it’s really cool and you should check it out on our website, www.edchoice.org. 

But I think we have an opportunity here to do the kind of quick preview of this. And I think of these sort of things in two different buckets, so new stuff that kind of came out this year that we think is interesting and worth diving into. And then at the same time these cool trends that we’ve been able to do over the course of the last 11 years. So Colyn, I might start with this first. As someone who was key to this project and has been writing about it and understanding, are there things that stood out to you from this year’s findings that you think people should know about? 

Colyn Ritter: Yeah, thanks Mike. And I want to preface everything by saying and highlighting the good work that, like Mike said, the graphic design and the communications team for EdChoice did. They had so much work to do and they did it in such short turnaround and they did it so well and they deserve all the kudos and the credit in the world. They are excellent. And also the work from John and Paul and part of the research team too. And they did such great work designing the questionnaire. And this is just a very fun project to be a part of because, like John said earlier, it’s not often you can see questions being trended 11 years in the past and things like that. And this is a very important poll that we do each year and it’s great to be part of it. 

But to answer your question, the biggest finding that stuck out to me when I was first looking at the cross tabs and when the data came back to us, it came from reasons of parents and why they chose the school that they chose for their child. And that’s one of the ones that I always look at when this comes out, for the last three years I’ve been involved in it. And we have this big table on the dashboard that breaks it down by parent, by sector. So we have public school parents, charter school parents, private school and homeschool parents as well. And some things that have stuck out to me was that the distribution of reasons was fairly wide this year and wider than the past in the sense that parents are prioritizing a safe environment more than they were in the past. And as a result, some other things that were less prioritized were things like academic quality. So we asked parents why they chose their school and one of the reasons was academic quality of the school and among each type of parent that decreased in 2023. 

So that really stuck out to me and I was wondering where it went, where the prioritization rankings of the top three priorities went and safety was one of the ones that really popped. For example, charter school parents and homeschool parents, safety was their number one reason for why they chose their school type for their child. And then looking at public school, it was fourth-highest behind things that might be pretty predictable, like location, socialization and the fact that it was the assigned district school to their neighborhood, but also for private school parents safety was the third-highest reason. It stuck out to me, obviously it makes you think about the horrible tragedies that occurred in 2023 in Uvalde and Nashville and in other areas around the country. And that is one of the things that parents are reverting back to and they’re thinking, okay, well, again, it was kind of implied in the past and it’s like safety is obviously something parents want for their schools, but with these horrible things that have happened, they need to go back and think, okay, well this is the thing that we need the most. 

And it’s also stuck out to me partly because in Schooling in America we have a special focus section where we interchange the questions, we’re able to add new ones that are more prevalent. So for example, last year we did fiscal questions related to school funding and things like that. This year we did safety related questions, some questions that we’ve seen actually in our monthly tracker polling, but they were related to safety and concern about a violent intruder, how schools handle safety issues like guns, bullying, things like that, problems at school. So we had a lot of questions digging into what’s happening within the school, what schools are doing to prevent these things from happening. And that was one of the biggest takeaways is that parents are really prioritizing safety in 2023. And it showed up in a couple different questions. That’s one of the many findings that stuck out to me, but we could go all day with this one. 

Mike McShane: No, totally. And no, and I think too, it’s actually interesting because I think it validates some of the stuff we’ve been finding in the Schooling in America survey, or not our schooling in America, our tracker. I’m not even keeping them straight. How can I have the listeners keep it straight? But in our tracker podcast, we’ve been asking school safety. Last summer we had a whole special focus on school safety. And one of these things that we’ve been finding over and over again is parents reporting that they are worried about a violent intruder entering their school. 

And as Colyn brought up, this poll is done slightly differently. We’re working with a different provider to do all the work. And what’s remarkable is that the numbers are very, very similar to what we see in the tracker and what we see in Schooling in America. So I mean, I think we can say with a very high level of confidence that this is an opinion held by approximately the number of people that we routinely see in our polls. It’s a sort of triangulation here, different ways of asking the question, different means of doing so still, coming to the same response. 

So yeah, I mean I think that’s definitely something that stood out to me. I thought a reference that’s almost too old for me, which means it’s definitely probably too old for the two of you, is that I think, was it Bill… Someone will correct us who listens to this. Whether Bill Clinton’s was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It might’ve been older than that. Was it Bill Clinton? I’m getting nods on here. Okay, fantastic. And in some ways I was like, when I looked at this, my takeaway was like, “It’s the safety, stupid. It’s the safety.” Parents are concerned about safety in their kids’ schools, one of the reasons that they’re choosing is because of safety and there are very clear things that they are worried about. It’s not general malaise in places. Because there are some kind of those interesting things about we ask these questions about people finding their schools being orderly or disorderly or others, they don’t necessarily exactly, but there are specific things that parents are worried about with respect to safety. And so I think that that’s important. 

But John, so from this year’s finding, or next after this, we’ll kind of think of these longer trends, but was there anything else that sort of stood out to you? 

John Kristof: I think there’s a sense in which you see some positivity about parents’ current schooling decisions for their kids. And this has reflected in some other ways and reflect some conversations that we’ve had in the public opinion tracker. But we have a series of questions that we’ve included as one of our special focuses for this year’s tracker. Specifically just a basic question of do you feel like your child’s school is calm or stressful? Or do you feel kind of neutrally between those two terms? And we have another dichotomy of do you feel that the school is orderly or chaotic? Responsive, unresponsive? Supportive, discouraging? Safe or unsafe? And a majority of parents, regardless of what type of school they send their kids to, choose the more positive term between these. And then the next highest is the neutral term, with the minority of parents feeling the negative. 

Now that said, when you have 7% of parents saying that they feel like their child’s school is unsafe, that’s more than one out of 20. That turns into a lot of kids. And I haven’t done the back of the napkin math before coming into here to know how many that is or to estimate how many that is, but 7% can still be quite a bit. 14% feeling like their kid’s school is stressful, again, great that it’s not 70% or something like that. I guess I should clarify, not a majority of parents feel like their child’s school is calm, 49% do and then 36% say neutral, and then 14% say stressful, just want to dot my I’s there. A lot of parents feel that their kid’s school is responsive, which is very good, communication’s very important. But 7% say no and 31% kind of feel lukewarm about it. 

So there is something to say that there is a lot of positivity from parents about schools, which reflects a general sense of positivity towards schools, the more local they are. This is something I say a lot that people tend to be more positive about schools the closer they are to the situation. Whether you’re a parent or a non-parent, you feel worse about schools, just thinking loosely in the country, than you do about your local school. But if you’re a parent, you feel better about schools locally than a non-parent, you’re closer to the situation. People hate Congress but love their congressmen, that very classic effect there. And so there is a good amount of satisfaction with their kids’ schools. 

Now that said, there always is a sense that things could be better, and there’s not really a trend to speak of here because it’s basically the same every year. About 80% of parents currently send their kid to a public school of some kind, the vast majority with the district to which the child is assigned. A third to 40% would actually prefer to do that if they took cost out of the equation, if they took transportation out of the equation. And nearly a third of that group would prefer to send their kid outside the school district to which they’re currently residentially assigned. About 50% more parents would like to send their kids to a charter school than actually do send their kid to a charter school. Nearly four times as many parents would like to send their kids to a private school as actually do send their kid to a private school. And more than four times as many parents would like to homeschool as parents who actually do homeschool. 

So there is a sense of positivity about schools that you can see with some of our new special focuses, which is very helpful. But I think there’s also a sense where parents can think about how things could be better, just reflects in one of our age-old questions about their schooling preferences versus actual enrollment. 

Mike McShane: So let’s talk trends. John, we’ll do the fantasy football horseshoe back around. So we were just talking about stuff that stood out this year, but again, a great virtue of this survey is we have 11 years that we can look back and look at trends, at the data on these various questions. Are there particular trends that you thought were interesting or insightful or that people should know about? 

John Kristof: One of the trends that stood out to me this year, speaking of positivity and pessimism, is the most general question that we ask, which is how do you feel about the direction of K–12 education right now? And we kind of keep this broad, speaking of a national level for Schooling in America. This is one of the questions we’ve been asking since 2013, so we’ve been able to keep track over some time. And this is the highest percentage of people since we started conducting this survey have said that they feel like K–12 education is heading in the wrong direction. So 70% of Americans think that K–12 is heading in the wrong direction. Now, that includes parents and non-parents. When you take parents into account, they’re still more likely to think that K–12 is going in the wrong direction than the right direction, but it’s 56% instead of 70%. 

Now, something that I found interesting, and this also plugs the fact that we make our cross tabs for these data readily available and very accessible for people to use. If you want to dive into how specific demographic groups or community type groups or what regions of the country responded one way or another, you can check out the cross taps for more detailed information. When you look at political party for this question, something that I found interesting is that if you look at a trend for this, and Colyn and I have done some write-ups about this on the EdChoice blog before, there is a flip that happens seemingly after every presidential victory when the party flips, where all of a sudden if your party’s candidate lost, all of a sudden K–12 education’s heading in a worse direction. And if your party’s candidate won, all of a sudden K–12 education is heading in a great direction. That happened in the 2020 election. Republicans started feeling much worse about K–12 education. Democrats started feeling much better. 

But to give you maybe a sense for just where the country in general is feeling about education right now, Democrats, although much more optimistic about K–12 education than Republicans, are feeling worse about K–12 education now than they were the year before Biden won the election. So in other words, the downward trend in optimism about K–12 education is so strong that it has completely undone the power of your candidate winning the presidential election. Now what to do with that and how much to lean into that is a matter of debate. But I think there’s a bipartisan sense that as a system, K–12 is not really working right now. And again, parents tend to like their schools. 

But the bigger the picture that people think about this question, the less happy people are. And I think it’s getting pretty stark. You can make a lot of arguments whether you look at this from a political perspective, a party standpoint or just in general, how many people say that things are going off on the wrong track, there’s an argument to be stated that people kind of think that things are the worst that they’ve been over the last decade. Probably worth noting. 

Mike McShane: Colyn, trends that stood out to you? 

Colyn Ritter: I’m thinking about what John just said and that makes me want to go into our monthly tracker and see if, because we also asked the K–12 direction in that one, and that one we break out by local, state and national, I want to see if the political party ID demographic supports what John said because that’s a trend I’ve leaned on in the past thinking, in a year leading up to an election and also the year after, there’s really interesting shifts there. But I will go to something rather predictable because what kind of EdChoice podcast would this be if we didn’t talk somewhat about educational choice? And John made a good point to just the system as a whole is sort of turning people off and we don’t see any of that with our trends and our questions about school choice. 

So we ask one question broadly about school choice and we say, “Do you support school choice?” It’s very simple. And what we see, and we’ve asked this for three years now, since 2021, we see the majority of parents and the majority of the general population, a majority of Americans say that they are in favor of school choice. That trend did not change much. It remained relatively stable. I think the general population dropped by about 3% while parents increased by 1%. So remains stable. In both cases, I find it interesting that more people say they’ve never heard of school choice than people who say they oppose school choice. So that’s one thing that stuck out to me and it has remained true over the last three years. 

But then when you break it out into types of school choice, the actual policies, we have data going back to 2013 asking about ESAs, tax credit scholarships, vouchers, and charter schools. And since 2016, ESAs have been the top dog. They have been the king of the castle, and they’ve stayed that way this year with both the general public and parents. Three out of four of the general public, three out of four Americans support ESAs, while over 80% of parents support ESAs, 83%. And that always sticks out to me. They actually increased 2% this year while a charter school tax credit scholarship decreased and vouchers stayed relatively stable. And 2% is also under the umbrella of staying relatively stable. But 83% is crazy to me. It’s stayed above 80% ever since 2019, looking at parents. People, whether you’re a parent or you’re an American and you don’t have a kid and you have no stake in K–12 education, from that regard, you are supportive of ESAs most likely. 

And the other thing that we ask when looking at ESAs, we ask a split sample question about ESAs, whether they should be available to all families regardless of income and special needs. So universal ESAs versus needs-based ESAs. And what we’ve seen since 2015, so nine years of data on the question, the majority of Americans would rather support universal ESAs. The lowest it got to was 56% were in favor of universal ESAs. That was in 2016. We now see a third straight year of 76% of Americans supporting universal ESAs. For reference only 54% of Americans support needs-based ESAs. And I think that’s significant because of what we’ve seen in 2023, states like Iowa, Utah, Arkansas really being champions of universal school choice and making education savings accounts available to every family in their state. And they’re following what the people want and they’re also following broadly what people want when it comes to school choice and ESAs. That was another one of the big takeaways we had. 

We also have a really interesting question of the percent of respondents saying they’ve never heard of a certain choice policy, and we have that for ESAs, vouchers and charter schools and it just continues to go down. When we first asked about ESAs, two in five Americans said that they had never heard of ESAs. That percentage is now down to 31%. Charter schools, when we first started asking it was over a third of Americans had never heard of charter schools. That’s down to 11% now. That’s a pretty serious decrease over the last 11 years. So people are fans of school choice no matter how you slice it, and I’m really looking forward to getting into the demographics to see which groups favor which policies more. But my guess is it’s going to be the majority of a certain group supports ESAs or just school choice broadly because overall that’s what we see. And it’s good to see that. And it’s also good to see states kind of following suit with the public opinion there. 

Mike McShane: Well, Colyn, John, thank you very much for your insights. Jacob, our fantastic podcast producer, thank you for editing all of this together and making it sound great. For those looking to see the full survey and all of its details, you can head to our website edchoice.org and look at the Schooling in America survey dashboard. Just while we were doing here, I’m pretty sure if you just Google Schooling in America survey dashboard or Schooling in America survey, the dashboard is the first thing that pops up, but that’s definitely where you can check it out. We’re excited to see what everyone thinks about it and to use the wonderful tools that Jacob and the rest of the crew at EdChoice built for your viewing pleasure. Thanks for joining us as always, and I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.