Ep. 18: Surveying the Military with Lindsey Burke & Paul DiPerna

October 16, 2017

Our new research, Surveying the Military, is the first of its kind and methodology to delve deeper into former and current military families’ thoughts on K–12 education in America. This 2017 survey of 1,200 active-duty military servicemembers, veterans and their spouses aims to help policymakers and the public better understand this important population’s perspectives on school choice policies, the military profession and more.

Co-authors of this new EdChoice report, Paul DiPerna and Lindsey Burke, joined us in the studio to share their results and possible implications for policymakers.

To download the full report, visit Surveying the Military.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and policy analysis. I am joined today by Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy for the Heritage Foundation, an EdChoice fellow, a doctoral Candidate at George Mason University and coauthor of our latest report, Surveying the Military: What America’s Servicemembers, Veterans, and Their Spouses Think About K–12 Education and the Profession. Welcome, and thank you for taking the time with us today Lindsey. You are very busy these days.

Lindsey Burke: Thank you so much for having me.

Drew Catt: I’m also joined by EdChoice’s Vice President of Research and Innovation Paul DiPerna. Paul also authored the report we’ll be discussing today along with Lindsey and Anne Ryland. Welcome Paul.

Paul DiPerna: Hey, Drew. Thanks for having me. Hi, Lindsey.

Lindsey Burke: Hey, Paul.

Drew Catt: Let’s start with a question everyone will ask. Why study the military’s views on education? In other words, what inspired this new research and what ground did you cover in your questionnaire?

Paul DiPerna: That’s a really good question, Drew. I think that after November, we were talking internally, because there was a lot of discussion out there in the public domain about, what’s the role of the federal government, especially when it comes to advancing school choice. We were thinking about that a lot. There are ideas about a tax-credit scholarship program of some kind at the federal level. Our view is that school choice is better implemented and enacted at the state and local level. We did talk a little bit about the military needs and the population could use some more options and access to other types of schools or education providers, whether public or private.

We were talking internally about that a little bit here and there. Then, low and behold, all of a sudden Lindsey called me up one day and had a great idea based on a lot of the work that she had been doing with her colleagues at the Heritage Foundation. So, maybe take it from there Lindsey and how that, some of the work that you were doing and how you’ve been thinking about this issue.

Lindsey Burke: Yeah, it was one of those great minds think alike situations where we had both independently started really thinking about how could we better serve these families who have sacrificed so much for our country. We really started at Heritage thinking about it when we came across some pretty, I think, startling statistics about the educational experiences military families have had. It was, I think, just eye-opening for us when we read that the schooling options that are available to military-connected children can play a role in whether a family chooses to even accept an assignment or even to leave or to stay in military service all together.

We had read a poll from an independent organization that 35 percent of families, of military families were dissatisfied with their children’s education to the point that it was a significant factor in their decision to remain in military service. When we read that, we just really took a big step back and said, “Wow, this is not only an education issue that we’re dealing with here, but this is a retention issue. This is something that could actually have national security implications.” That immediately got us thinking, how can we better serve these families who have served us so well, which of course, led us to thinking about surveying them, hearing more about their experiences, and ultimately, getting their insights and perspectives on this broader question of how we can reform education and provide some educational choice options for them.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Can you tell us more about your sample, Paul and Lindsey?

Paul DiPerna: Sure, Drew. For this survey, we interviewed online and by telephone 1,200 military households. The sample includes active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and active-duty spouses and veteran spouses. Roughly as part of the sample, we were fortunate enough to survey about 40 percent of our sample’s active-duty military members.

About a quarter are veterans, who had previously served in the US armed forces, and then about 11 percent were active-duty spouses. Twenty-seven percent were veteran spouses. It’s across all the different military service branches and also varying a lot in terms of their length of service where about two out of five had served four years or less.

We also had close to 10 percent who had served 20 years or more. Then, there’s quite a few in between there in terms of their, the length of their service. Male and female about, almost 50/50. It was about 43 percent male, 57 percent female. Along other demographics too we just saw that we were able to reach a nice cross section of the military households.

Lindsey Burke: Yeah, I think Paul covered the sample pretty well. I don’t really have anything to add to that, but it was nationally representative sample of these families, both veteran and active-duty military. All to say, this was important, because it is to our, as far as we know, one of the, if not the first survey to not only interview these families, survey these families about their educational experiences, but specifically ask this population about their opinions on school choice and some of the newer iterations of school choice, like education savings accounts. To our knowledge there isn’t another survey out there that has specifically asked these populations, military families and veterans, what their opinions are on school choice specifically.

Paul DiPerna: Right. Then, just to follow up with Lindsey just said, we saw this as an opportunity to break some new ground in terms of asking questions about educational choice issues and subjects. Then, also there have been some other surveys of military families and we incorporated and adapted some of their questions that were asked in those surveys to have some comparison. We saw this as a really good opportunity and the timing was good to try to better understand these families and their needs and how educational choice policies may be able to help them.

Drew Catt: So, speaking of military families and education, what did you find that military families think about K–12 education today, and what is it they’re not getting out of the system now?

Lindsey Burke: That’s a great question, and I think this is one of the key findings from the survey. When families, when these military families were asked where they would like to send their children to school, 68% of the respondents said something other than a district public school, a traditional public school. I mean, that’s a lot, right?

Drew Catt: Yeah.

Lindsey Burke: That’s nearly seven out of 10 respondents chose something other than a traditional district school. So, 34 percent of them said their preference would be private; 17 percent said charter. While you have almost seven out of 10 saying they would prefer something other than a district school, 80 percent of them are sending their children to district schools. There’s a real, I think, disconnect there that suggests to us that while the vast majority, 80 percent are sending, likely because they have too and are assigned to those district schools based on where their next duty station is. While 80 percent of them have to attend district schools that are assigned to them, nearly 7 out of 10 would prefer something different and that I think is a really critical point.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I mean that is, that’s a big finding in terms of just this misalignment between these preferences of military families and what we actually see in terms of their real-world enrollments.

Drew Catt: Then, going beyond just schooling types, what do military families think about educational choice programs?

Lindsey Burke: They seem quite receptive to education choice programs. The survey put out the idea of school choice, but education savings accounts, specifically just in a general term, “What do you think about the idea of education savings accounts and school choice?” It got broad support, about 51 percent of all respondents supported the idea, along with about 57 percent of active-duty respondents. However, when a description was provided to respondents describing school choice and specifically describing what an education savings account does, how it works, that number just jumped up dramatically.

About 75 percent of active-duty military families support the idea of education savings accounts (ESAs), of being able to control their share of dollars, to use them to pay, not only for private school tuition, but the whole multitude of other education-related services and products and providers that ESAs enable families to finance. So, that level of support, 75 percent level of support among active-duty respondents for ESAs I think was the most notable finding that came out of our survey.

Paul DiPerna: That is such a high level of support and higher than we typically see in our national and state polling that we’ve done in previous years. As Lindsey mentioned, that jump in support from this baseline, no-description question and how that shot up more, about 20 points to when they are given a description. I mean, that, to me, was one of the more surprising findings where we typically see a jump of maybe 10 to 15 points. There were some other questions in the survey where we asked families about what they do to secure and accommodate for their child’s K–12 education.

We see that these military families make humongous sacrifices at higher rates than what we’ve seen among the general population and the national average in our other polling. Whether it’s taking out a new loan, transporting their children to and from school, asking other friends and family to help to support their child’s education—these military families are very proactive. They seem to be a very proactive population, much more so than even the national average.

That’s where the impression that I’m taking away is, that ESAs fit into that type of profile of very active invested, engaged parents and families. ESAs offer that flexibility to help families either support their tuition to transfer schools or for tutoring, taking online courses, and other types of educational activities. We asked some contextual questions, even before we asked the school choice questions. It seems like there is, there’s a story there that emerged out of the polling.

Lindsey Burke: Yeah and also pigging back on that too, you’re exactly right. I think, with the way in which these families are engaged with their children’s education and really taking the reins of it already. In our survey, we found that about 54 percent of military families had paid for either before- or after-care services for their children, compared to 35 percent of the civilian population. Then on the tutoring piece, that was pretty high as well. About 29 percent of military families had paid for private tutoring and these types of ancillary services. Afterschool programming, tutoring are exactly the types of a la carte options that ESAs enable parents to finance.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, that’s totally right.

Drew Catt: So far you’ve both mentioned some findings that were surprising to you. Were there any other findings that surprised you or stood out?

Lindsey Burke: I think a lot of it is consistent with what we hear from families about the need for education choice generally. Which is to say, I think military families are like all of us. They’re like every parent. They want quality education options for their children and they want choice. Surprise, surprise, people like choice. That wasn’t surprising. It was notable though that when we delved into the reasons families supported, military families supported ESAs, it was primarily access to a better academic environment.

It was right under that, the next most popular reason was just more freedom and flexibility for parents. That is, I think, part and parcel of why education choice for the military population in particular is so important. If you think about the nature of military life, families moving far more frequently than your civilian population moves, children moving within state frequently, or moving across state lines frequently as well. Families will get new assignments, different duty stations and they follow where they’re supposed to go.

Picking up and moving can really be a challenge for a lot of families in terms of matching education providers with their children’s needs. I think that that really stood out to me. That flexibility component is what these families are really seeking out. It’s not surprising if you consider just the nature of military life in general.

Paul DiPerna: I think, for me, one of the more surprising findings was that jump in support from baseline to descriptive item for the ESAs and even for the other choice questions, like on the voucher items. Then, there was a set of items where we asked them to rate their local school districts on a range of indicators. For the most part, they were on balance, they tended towards being positive about some of the ratings that they would give their school districts. You have that on the one hand, that finding, but then you have this other finding about their views on choice policies, on ESAs, vouchers, so forth and how high those levels of support were and how wide those margins were when you compared the support versus the opposition responses.

Despite relative satisfaction with some of the services that their school districts provide them in terms of keeping them informed about school activities, providing school counseling activities, communicating with parents, some communication-related services, it was fascinating to me to see this really high level of support for choice policies as well and how that held up. I think that speaks to something, Lindsey had mentioned this a few minutes ago, about this flexibility and, for lack of a better word, empowering households to make decisions for their kids to give them the best education that they have. There’s something else there that they’re yearning for, at least that’s my read into the pattern of those different findings.

Drew Catt: Paul you mentioned that you did look at some cross sections and subgroups and when you look at those specific demographics in subgroups, did anything stand out?

Paul DiPerna: We did ask them questions about if they had enrolled their child for at least a period of time in any one type of school environment, whether it was a public charter school, district school, private school or homeschooling. It was interesting to me that Latino parents consistently reported higher rates of basically trying out these different types of schooling environments. You saw that more than half of Latino parents in our sample said that they had tried a charter school for their child and that was significantly higher than white parents or even African-American parents.

We saw that more than half, about 52 percent of Latino families had tried a private school for their child. Even two out of five, about 42 percent, said that they had tried to homeschool their child. That just struck me as, for one of those subgroup findings, that really, that we haven’t really seen that before. It was just something that I didn’t expect.

Drew Catt: How can policymakers and school choice advocates use this report? What can they take away and use right now?

Lindsey Burke: First, I would say another finding that we had that really stood out, was exactly on that question. What do these families, active-duty, veteran, military families think about congressional action on such a question. Should congress consider a proposal, the way the question was worded, to establish an education savings account option for military families. Seventy-two percent of active duty respondents favored something like that happening. I think it’s worthwhile noting that, Paul mentioned at the top of the segment, that school choice is rightly a state and local, primarily a state and local issue.

That’s absolutely right if you think about both the US Constitution, but also if you just think about financing. The federal government’s a pretty meager stakeholder in education financing. They’re responsible for 10 percent of everything that’s spent on K–12. The money’s really at the state and local level. However, military families are one of those groups who are in a unique position vis-a-vis federal involvement in advancing education choice. National security, national defense is an enumerated power of the federal government and providing for the education of military-connected children is something that the federal government has historically been involved with. It is appropriate to think about how we can establish some choice options through federal policy, for military families. It’s appropriate to think about how we can maybe modernize existing programs, the education programs for military families to transition them into choice-based policies at the end of the day, no matter what population it is, but it’s critical for military families who move so much.

At the end of the day this is about money, the dollars that we currently spend going to children, going to families, instead of to institutions, instead of to physical school buildings and really empowering those families to choose options that work for them. Our respondents agreed with that to a very large extent, 72 percent. So, I think there is a lot of room and appetite and it’s appropriate for Washington to actually think about advancing choice options for military families, for service members and their children.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that based on what we found in this survey, this hopefully can just bring fuller context and understanding of where military families are coming from, especially when it comes to their schooling activities and educational activities. As Lindsey described, a really good opportunity to rethink how the federal government supports the education of active-duty military families and to try to consider more choice-based, choice-friendly policies, so that these families do have that flexibility. And that, hopefully, because of those policies they would be able to stay and serve longer. So, I think that this is just a good window of opportunity for folks on the hill and in congress to consider some new measures, some new thinking around education policies for military households.

Drew Catt: Speaking of opportunities, what other research do you think could or should be done following this report?

Paul DiPerna: That’s a really good question. I’ve been thinking about this as we’ve been writing up the report. It would be fascinating to follow a panel of military families over a long period of time. Ideally, we’re talking maybe over the course of, and there are survey programs through the US Department of Education that do have these types of panel surveys where they go back periodically and interview whether it’s parents, teachers, school principals, and students and just see how they respond differently to similar items over a very long period of time.

I think it would be excellent to do something like that for military families over at least a decade or more, just to see, ideally trying to catch them as they’re entering the K–12 schooling years and to see how their experiences progress over time. Then, to see both parents and those students, just see what their later outcomes are after those K–12 schooling years are behind them. Ideally, if there could, some policy changes or enactments in that time then you could have some pre and post types of analyses to see how those policies maybe have affected their behaviors and activities.

Lindsey Burke: I think there’s a lot of room for, not only research on this topic, but also more thought about different policy reforms that are needed and appropriate and long overdue. We talked a little bit about federal policy changes, but this is also a state level issue without a doubt. The proportion of military families state to state varies pretty widely. You’ve got places like Texas and North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas that have a high level of those military families. North Carolina and Texas in particular, but California as well. It’s time, I think, at the state level to really think about in addition to any federal policy this federal, state choreography to really ensure that these families have access to options that work for them.

That was one of the other things that really catalyzed our work in this field was, when we looked at the proportion of military families who were out there, active-duty families with school age children and looked at where they were located state to state, base to base. Then, assessed the school choice landscape for them, we found that only half of all military-connected children are in state with any type of school choice options whatsoever. So, in addition to federal policy enabling families to leverage their share of education dollars, it’s also a matter of state-level policy of states taking the opportunity and really providing these families with school choice options. I think ESAs are a really great way to go for families. If a state like Texas providing military families with education savings accounts would go a long way in ensuring these families are taken care of, served well, and that retention is not an issue for them moving forward.

Drew Catt: Before we sign off, what’s next for each of you? Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Lindsey Burke: Well, I’ll just say that we’re thinking, these survey results were, I think, in part eye-opening, but in part not entirely surprising. Like I said earlier, I was not surprised that military families are like all families and that they want choice and options for their children that are well-matched to the needs of their children. Now, we, I think, have a real jumping off point for additional research, for policy reforms and recommendations. So, we’ll be thinking about that more systematically moving forward. Then, also just reaching out to military families themselves, caring about their experiences. We’re hoping to do events with families here, events with policymakers working with folks on the hill to think through policy changes in the next few months. That’s definitely on the radar for us.

Paul DiPerna: Just like what Lindsey just said, I think engagement is a big thing and a huge priority for us after this report’s been released. We hope to be talking a lot more with policymakers, whether it’s at the federal level or at the state level like Lindsey had mentioned, to see what possibilities there might be for any new kinds of programs or policies and really to educate those key stakeholders in terms of learning more about the different types, what education savings accounts do and how they can be useful for families.

So, we hope to do more events and meetings in the coming weeks and months around the release of this report. Then, we also have separately our national survey coming out in about a month, month and a half in November and that would be a good opportunity to have more current numbers nationally to compare to some of these military responses that we found in our survey. So, that’s the next thing on our plate.

Drew Catt: Those comparisons will be pretty interesting. Thank you both so much for joining us and sharing this crucial study of military families and veterans.

Lindsey Burke: Thanks for having us and thanks to EdChoice in particular for seeing this as an important issue and working to survey these families. I think this is going to be really foundational for education choice moving forward.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I agree. Thanks and Lindsey it’s been a joy working with you and Anne on this report. Thanks for all the work that you guys have been doing.

Lindsey Burke: Likewise.

Drew Catt: Check out the description box for a link to the full Surveying the Military report. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast for more of our coverage of new school choice research and education reform policy chats. Thank you for listening, and until next time, take care.