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Survey Finds Rising Approval for Nation’s Schools, Online High School Classes

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 18, 2020 6 min read
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Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has pushed many K-12 classes online, parental backing for having their children take some high school classes virtually has hit 73 percent in an annual education survey’s latest poll results—17 percentage points higher than it was just over a decade ago.

In addition, the poll by the policy journal Education Next released Tuesday indicates that overall support for the nation’s schools has grown significantly in the last half-dozen years, even as those the survey called political populists are much more skeptical of them. In the 2020 survey, 30 percent of respondents gave the nation’s public schools a grade of A or B, up from 19 percent in 2014. That’s the highest approval level EdNext has ever recorded and a six-point jump from last year, although most of the general public still gives the nation’s public schools a grade of C, D, or F.

And it remains to be seen how public perceptions change as schools reopen amid the unprecedented challenges created by the pandemic.

EdNext’s survey, which was conducted in May, also found that when it comes to choice, neither private school tuition vouchers nor tax-credit scholarships “polarizes public opinion as much as charter schools do.”

Pay Increases and Virtual Courses

The annual EdNext survey also focused on public perceptions of things like teacher pay and school spending. Both issues have become more partisan recently, according to the results. Compared to last year, for example, support for teacher pay increases has risen slightly among Democrats, from 64 percent to 66 percent, but declined among Republicans, from 43 percent to 40 percent.

It’s worth noting that EdNext has found steadily growing support for online courses for high schoolers since 2013, and this year’s results were essentially in line with that growth trend. And despite the growing support for online classes overall since 2009, when 56 percent of parents voiced support for children taking some high school coursework virtually, that doesn’t mean they or others want them to take all those courses online.

On average, EdNext reported that the general public and parents specifically support high school students taking 11 courses online to graduate, out of 24 total courses that high schoolers typically take in order to graduate. In 2017, on average the support for both groups was for nine such courses.

EdNext surveyed 4,291 adults, and over-sampled teachers as well as those identifying as Black or Hispanic.

However, in a piece accompanying the survey, which was conducted in May, the authors caution against using the poll results to draw broad conclusions about parents’ attitudes about what happened last spring, when the coronavirus caused the vast majority of school buildings to close.

“Our data do not offer conclusive evidence that these experiences changed attitudes, but those parents who reported more-positive experiences during school closures are more likely to support online schooling,” wrote Michael B. Henderson, David M. Houston, Paul E. Peterson, M. Danish Shakeel, and Martin R. West. (Among the general public, support for having students go online for some high school classes grew from 54 percent to 71 percent over the past decade.)

Other public opinion surveys have shown major concerns among low-income families about the impact of closed school buildings on their children’s academic progress.

And while a growing share of people might approve of some online courses, that doesn’t mean everyone has . Research from before the pandemic indicated that a third of all U.S. students—roughly 16 million children—came from households that lacked access to the internet, an internet-connected device, or both. And children of color are especially hurt by this “digital divide.”

Among parents, 85 percent of those who said they were the most satisfied with remote learning during the pandemic also said they support their kids taking high school courses online, while 58 percent of those who were least satisfied said so.

The Trump Effect

The EdNext survey also looked at how respondents viewed certain policies when informed of President Donald Trump’s position on them. (EdNext did similar examination of public perceptions regarding President Barack Obama time in office.) Perhaps not surprisingly, being informed of Trump’s views of a specific topic tended to polarize responses to them. That was particularly true with respect to charter schools.

Among the general public, 44 percent said they supported charter schools. Yet when Democrats were told of Trump’s position on them, support dropped from 37percent to 30 percent, while Republican support surged from 54 percent to 65 percent. That partisan gap is 14 percentage points higher than the one that emerged after similar questions about tax-credit scholarships:

While EdNext says that Trump supports charter schools, and the president has often spoken favorably of them, his most recent budget proposal would eliminate $440 million in dedicated charter school aid and combine it with several other big programs into a block grant.

Overall, support for charter schools declined slightly in the poll, from 47 percent to 44 percent, but opposition to them also dipped from 40 percent to 37 percent. Support for charter schools among Black respondents dipped from 55 percent last year to 48 percent this year, although it remains higher than support among respondents who were white (44 percent) or Hispanic(45 percent).

A split by race among Democrats when it comes to support for charters recently, with backing among whites dropping significantly; Democratic backers of charters have been keen to show that support remains relatively high among Blacks and Hispanics. It’s not clear what the change in support EdNext found among Black respondents in particular, and Democrats as well, might indicate about future support for charters.

Perhaps the policy most affected by Trump’s position in the poll was merit pay for teachers; 41 percent of Democrats said they supported it, but among Democrats who were told the president supports it, that plunged to 23 percent.

Populists and Others

The EdNext survey also touches on those who subscribe to political “populism.” The authors define populism “as a belief that political leaders too often neglect the interests of ‘the people.’” They note that the majority of Republicans (57 percent) scored above a median measure of populism, compared to 43 percent of Democrats.

Several responses from those who most closely identify with populist by the survey’s definition also show some alignment with policies that Republican officials often favor.

At the most general level, only 23 percent of those who most strongly identify as populists gave the nation’s schools an A or B grade, and 31 percent gave them a D or F. But among the least-populist group of respondents, 35 percent gave the nation’s schools an A or B, and just 13 percent gave them D or F grades. Both groups viewed local public schools much more favorably, although there was a similar breakdown in opinions.

Here’s more information on how different groups viewed their local public schools:

The people who were most strongly identified as populists were much more likely to support charter schools, universal vouchers, and home schooling than the least-populist group.

EdNext found that 49 percent of respondents overall supported allowing parents to home-school their children, compared to 45 percent in 2017, which the journal said was not a statistically significant change. As the pandemic disrupts the start of the 2020-21 school year, some families have turned to creating private academic “pods” to offset struggles with or concerns about remote learning provided by schools.

Supporters of those pods say that they represent an understandable shift among parents and deserve more direct funding so that more parents can access them. Yet their critics say they favor wealthy parents and exacerbate inequities.

Images via Education Next


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