Ep. 22: 2017 Schooling In America Survey with Paul DiPerna & Team

November 29, 2017

The 2017 edition of our annual Schooling in America Survey project is finally out, and we made it easier than ever for you to learn and share our results.

Marty Lueken: Hi. I’m Marty Lueken, EdChoice’s Director of Fiscal Policy, and I’m sitting here with the authors of EdChoice’s 2017 Schooling in America report, our annual survey of Americans on K–12 education, school choice and—for the first time—the role of the federal government. I’m excited to welcome to the show EdChoice’s Vice President of Research Paul DiPerna.

Paul DiPerna: Hi, everybody.

Marty Lueken: Our Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt…

Drew Catt: Hello. Pleased to be here.

Marty Lueken: And our Research Assistant, Mike Shaw.

Mike Shaw: It’s great to be on the podcast, Marty.

Marty Lueken: Paul, let’s start with what’s different about this year’s survey, and why.

Paul DiPerna: Sure, so two things come to mind that are different than what we’ve done in the previous Schooling in America surveys. One has to do with the sampling, and a second one, a set of questions that we included this year that we have not in the past.

And so regarding the sampling, this year had a special focus on small town and rural residents, and so after we did our initial draw of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 respondents, then we over-sampled and collected additional interviews with Americans living in small town and rural areas. We did this because, in the aftermath of the election last year (and there was a lot of attention in the media and by others considering the importance of this demographic in terms of public opinion), policy makers were paying a lot more attention to this group. And so we thought it was a good time to dig a little deeper and get a better gauge of their views and attitudes on K–12 education generally, but particularly on school choice and educational choice issues and policies.

And so the second aspect of this year’s survey that is a bit different than before is that we included questions about what is the role of the federal government in K-12 education? And so we asked a few sets of questions asking about the role and to what extent Americans felt it should be a major role, minor role or no role at all and a whole range of issues, including education, but also others. And then we asked specific questions about the federal government’s responsibilities in K–12, and so we found some interesting results there.

Marty Lueken: Alright, well, considering today’s political climate, that makes sense. Let’s get into the findings, then. What do Americans, but parents in particular, what do they think about the current state of K–12 education and their schools specifically? Drew?

Drew Catt: Yeah, so I think in general, we’re seeing that, overall, consistent with previous years of the survey, that in general, Americans think that the K–12 education system that we have is on the wrong track with more than half of the general public saying so, while a little over a quarter are saying that it’s going in the right direction, which is a little bit of an uptick from last year, but it’s still down from the two years prior to that. We’re actually seeing that almost one in five parents, when asked if K–12 education is heading in the right direction or off on the wrong track, one in five don’t know or refused to answer.

Marty Lueken: Well, that may not sound as bad as many would have us think.

Drew Catt: And I think—to speak more specifically about what parents think about their own schools—if we look at parent’s ratings of their local public school districts, it’s either about 61 percent of parents think their local public school district does an excellent or good job at keeping them informed of activities, where closer to half say the same about communicating effectively, providing counseling services, being proactive or responsive to situations, and providing academic supports outside of the classroom.

Now, if we also look at the percentage saying fair or poor, it’s about 44 percent saying their local public school district does a poor job of providing academic supports outside of the classroom and similar levels for the others, aside from keeping them informed of activities, where it’s closer to about one-third.

Now, when we look at how parents are grading the schools, we asked all parents to grade their public district schools, their public charter schools and their private schools. But when we look at just the percentage that actually offered a grade after stripping out the ones that say they don’t know or refuse to answer, we see that about similar proportions, about almost one in five gave their public district schools or public charter schools an A rating. Now when we look at the private schools, interestingly, about 37 percent gave their private schools an A rating and when we look at the lower ratings, the Ds and the Fs, about 21 percent would rate their public district schools poorly and about 14 percent would say the same about their public charter schools and less than one out of 10, or about 8 percent, would give their private schools in their area a D or an F.

Mike Shaw: And regarding to parental satisfaction, we were able to discern from respondents who had sent their children to school for at least one year in the various sectors, their satisfaction levels, and all four sectors that we studied did show pretty high levels of satisfaction, all four from public district, public charter, homeschool, private school, at least seven out of 10 respondents expressed satisfaction, but there was a gap between the private and homeschool parents versus the public charter and public district parents with the private and homeschool parents, nine out of 10, at least, were satisfied, versus those more seven out of 10, or three out of four levels for the public sectors, respectively.

And it’s also worth acknowledging that the public charter and homeschool sample sizes were pretty small in comparison of our group sampled. A little more than 100 of those respondents had ever experienced at least a year of those two types of schools.

Marty Lueken: So are parents getting what they want out of our current public education system?

Mike Shaw: So we ask in our survey, a split sample question about what parents would prefer to send their children to. One’s just kind of a just a basic, standard question along those lines and then another group of respondents receive a question with the interested phrase of, “If money or transportation issues were no options,” and those combined results actually yield private schools pretty overwhelmingly as the first choice among the national sample, but it should be noted that there’s interesting differences for different subgroups.

The rural and small town residents, for instance, a group I’m sure we’ll talk about later, they’re actually more likely to want homeschooling options, even though they’re more likely to homeschool than the overall sample. They’d want even more of it in their preferences, which kind of makes sense when you consider they’re maybe more limited in their charter and private school options than other groups.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and I would add that for the approximately one-third of the parents that would choose a public district school, I would say that they are getting what they want, considering that based on the most recent federal data that 83 percent of K–12 students are in public district schools. And then to echo what Mike said with about two out of five current and former school parents that would opt for a private school compared to the only one in 10 students that actually attends a private school.

Paul DiPerna: And this is a pretty consistent finding that we’ve seen year to year in terms of just these big disconnects between what parents will say in our phone interviews and then what we’re seeing in terms of the real world school enrollments and so yeah, just to reiterate again, 83 percent of students today are attending public district schools, and just about a third of the parents in our survey said they would choose a public district school. And 15 percent, a public charter school, whereas only 4 percent of students today are attending charter schools.

So this suggests that there are these structural barriers or obstacles for allowing parents to match their preferences in terms of enrolling their child in a school.

Marty Lueken: Interesting, so there’s a big disconnect between what parents want and what they’re actually getting. In terms of their schooling.

Paul DiPerna: Right.

Marty Lueken: Well, of course, EdChoice supports all types of educational choice. We believe policies like education savings accounts, also known as ESAs, school voucher, tax-credit scholarships and charter schools. They all play a part in helping parents access those opportunities that you’ve mentioned that they prefer. So can you tell us, what do Americans think about those policies?

Paul DiPerna: Across the board, we see high levels of support for policies like education savings accounts, school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and public charter schools. And so seven out of 10 respondents said that they favored education savings accounts and a much smaller percentage said they opposed. And the margin, the difference, between those who favored and opposed ESAs was 52 points. And so I think that’s something when we’re talking about polling results, these kind of differences and margins aren’t highlighted enough and that’s something that we try to point out in our reporting is that when you see these gaps of 50 plus points, I mean, that’s huge. That suggests a strong likelihood for the general public to support ESAs.

And then we see similar kinds of gaps or margins when it comes to school vouchers and other policies and so the margin of support for school vouchers was 31 points, so 62 percent said they supported school vouchers, just about three out of 10 said they opposed school vouchers. And for tax-credit scholarships, a similar story, 62 percent support tax-credit scholarships, 26 percent oppose. That margin is 36 points.

And then for public charter schools, we see that about 61 percent support charters; 29 percent opposed. So there’s a 32-point gap, and so across the board, six out of 10 (to seven out of 10 for ESAs) support these kind of school choice policies.

Drew Catt: And yeah, one thing that I found interesting were the other percentages that are missing from that 100 percent. If you’re following along and doing the math in your head or on a sheet of paper, and those are the respondents that said that they don’t know about these policies or didn’t provide an answer. We can see based on the initial question, where we just asked about the type of policy prior to actually providing the information, that about two out of five respondents didn’t really know or couldn’t offer an answer about ESAs.

Almost two out of five for vouchers, and even though charter schools have been around about a quarter of a century, there were still about a quarter of the respondents that—prior to being provided with a definition—didn’t know about or didn’t provide an answer about charter schools.

Mike Shaw: Yeah, one definitely wonders if and when that knowledge gap is shrunk, what the margins will be and how things will change.

Marty Lueken: Wow. So the old saying, “Information is power,” holds true.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, and just to follow up what these guys have said, so we have these baseline questions where we ask about these policies without giving any type of a description and then we follow up with what we believe is a valid, informative description and we see that there are increases both for support and for opposition, but much more for support for ESAs, vouchers, charter schools, when they get more information about how these programs would operate.

Marty Lueken: Interesting. Well, as a fiscal analyst, I’d be interested to know what Americans think about K–12 education spending. How much do they know and what effect does having more information have on their opinions?

Drew Catt: It’s a very interesting question, Marty, and something that we’ve been following along over the years. So when we asked these survey respondents to just guess how much they believe is currently spent on each student in K–12 education on a per-pupil basis, only a little more than one out of 10 could guess the correct range, which was down to the $4,000 increment. Which I believe is fascinating.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, and so we’ve asked this question in our past national surveys as well as our state surveys. And it is really interesting that it’s a persistent finding, and it’s consistent across states and on national surveys, that it’s about 10 percent. Ten to 15 percent, usually, can get their answer in the right range. So they are actually giving an open-ended response to what they believe is the national average for per-pupil spending, and then we, after the survey fieldwork is done, then code those responses and put them in these different buckets or ranges. We look at the national average is a little bit more than $11,300 per student and yeah, so only 11 percent could even guess in that $8,000-$12,000 range.

Marty Lueken: Wow.

Mike Shaw: And I think it’s telling too, because you always hear in public policy debates that we should be funding education more, that schools and systems and districts and everyone within education don’t have enough. And when we see this on the macro level and we actually inform respondents of what current funding levels are, they’re fairly likely to say that funding for K–12 education is at an adequate level or some even increased their view that it’s actually above the level that they feel is adequate. It’s just something that doesn’t get into the debate a lot, but when you actually give the information, you see interesting results and responses.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and to further touch on what Mike was saying, so we actually split our sample of 1,000 respondents and gave half of them the actual spending figure and half of them, we withheld that information and then we asked, based on their previous response, or based on the information given to them, “Is the current funding level too high, about right or too low?” And as Mike was touching on, without the information, more than half said about right, but then, the group of respondents that was provided with the “more than $11,000 figure,” that becomes less than two out of five respondents that say about right, and almost doubling of the proportion of respondents saying that that amount is too high.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, so comparing, just to follow up with what Drew was describing, so when you compare these two split samples, what we see is that percentage that say funding is too low actually drops by a 16 percentage points. So we see a significant drop when respondents have no information and are just asked about their opinion on the level of funding. And so those who say “too low,” that is about 50 percent, and then when we do give them that national average per-student spending statistic of $11,300, we see that their views change and so that percentage drops to 38 percent.

Marty Lueken: Wow. I guess this could be a lesson to all of us to ask questions and keep ourselves informed.

Paul DiPerna: Yup.

Marty Lueken: Alright, well, enough about the money. I’d like to segue into the new parts of this year’s survey. Namely, the role of the federal government. So remind us when you interviewed this sample of people?

Paul DiPerna: So we conducted this survey in August and September of this year, so it’s the Fall.

Marty Lueken: Okay.

Paul DiPerna: Which is a little bit different than what we’d done in the past. In previous years, we conducted the survey in the Spring, usually in April and May, and so it was just in the last few months that we put the survey in the field.

Marty Lueken: Okay, so as of a couple months ago, how much do Americans trust the federal government?

Paul DiPerna: So only about 10 percent of Americans say that they can trust the federal government to do what is right always or most of the time. Less than half of respondents, 42 percent, said that they could trust the federal government some or most of the time, and that compares with more than half, about 53 percent, who say they can trust the federal government occasionally or never. And so we do get this general impression that there is a low level of trust among the American people who believe that the federal government will do what is right in Washington D.C.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it’s interesting, when we look at demographic breakdown, how some groups are more distrustful than others, such as Gen-Xers or those in low-income households, former school parents and those who identify themselves as Independents in terms of their political leaning.

Marty Lueken: And what did they say about priorities? What roles do Americans think the federal government should prioritize?

Mike Shaw: So this was interesting because we listed a long list of issues and tasks that the federal government has at least had a limited role in recently and historically and a whopping six out of 10 at the least said that the federal government should play a role in things like funding military families, providing funding so students with disabilities can access quality education, ensure student’s civil rights, things like that. But on a broad sense, only 3 percent of Americans said that education itself should be a top priority for the federal government.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, we asked respondents in what part, what areas, what aspects of life, in terms of their household priorities, or just broader public policy priorities, to what extent the federal government should intervene or have a significant role, and like Mike said, it was just 3 percent when it came to education that they thought that that should be a top priority for the federal government, and they were much more likely to say things like healthcare and economic issues were more important.

But then having said that and we followed up with these questions explicitly asking if the federal government should have a major role, minor role or no role at all in more specific issues areas and then drilling down in K–12 areas…then that’s when you do see some different opinions and views about major and minor roles for the federal government.

Drew Catt: And then to reiterate what Mike was saying, within K–12 education specifically, it’s the almost three-fourths that say the government should play a major role in funding access to high quality schools for military-connected students. Approximately two out of three said the same about funding for students with disabilities accessing quality education or ensuring the civil rights or protections for students and then approximately or a little more than three out of five said about the funding for quality education for all students. Funding for low-income students to access quality education, and then interestingly, about three out of five agreed that the federal government should play a major role in the funding to local and state education agencies.

Marty Lueken: Interesting. Well, before we wrap up, we can’t forget our small town and rural families. By way of oversampling, you mentioned that you interviewed more small town and rural residents this year. How are their responses to questions about education and the government different from the national average and even urban and suburban families?

Paul DiPerna: As far as how small town rural Americans feel about education and choice policies, they express high levels of support. Seventy-four percent said that they supported ESAs, and a much smaller percentage said they were in opposition to ESAs. And that’s pretty similar to what we pick up for urbanites and suburbanites, and so that each of those demographics was seven out of 10 that supported ESAs.

And then we also found some similarities across those groups for vouchers as well. So it was roughly six out of 10 who favored vouchers, and then there’s a little bit of a difference we picked up on tax-credit scholarships. Among suburbanites where two-thirds, about 66 percent, said that they favored tax-credit scholarships and a slightly lower percentage, 60 percent, of urbanites and small town and rural respondents said they supported tax-credit scholarships.

But generally, though, there aren’t huge differences across those demographics, but I mean, what we do see and pick up on that small town and rural American group is that they have positive feelings about all types of schooling, whether it’s private schools, their local public schools, charter schools, and as Mike had mentioned before, about homeschooling. They’re more likely that urbanites and suburbanites to say that they would like to homeschool their child and then they give this strong support for educational choice programs, and then they are a little bit more likely to feel that K–12 education is on the wrong track and slightly more likely to distrust the federal role in K–12 education.

Mike Shaw: But with the small town rural residents, like Paul was saying, it’s 58 percent who feel K–12 education is headed on the wrong track, and they’re also more likely than urban respondents to express some distrust in the federal government. That kind of just plays into the story of the past year and a half or so with regard to headlines with elections and federal policy.

Marty Lueken: Okay, well, yeah, small and rural communities tend to not be included sometimes in the discussions about education policy and school choice in particular, so I think moving forward, yeah, we’ll have to … It’s going to be a lot of work do.

Paul DiPerna: Yeah, I agree and I think that folks, especially in education reform space, are paying a lot more attention, just in the last couple years and particularly in the last year to small town and rural needs and priorities and so, I mean, there’s been some really good work that’s been done by Bellwether Education Partners and Serpi, who have looked at this rural question. I think they did some research in Idaho. Because, historically, education reform has its roots in urban education reform, we may be seeing now some expansion to that and to really dig deeper into what is facing small town and rural families when it comes to K–12 education.

Marty Lueken:  Alright, well, Paul, Drew, Mike, thanks for sharing these important findings and thanks to our listeners for joining us today. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcasts for more EdChoice coverage of school choice research and education reform policy chats. Until next time, be well and take care.