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Voters Don’t Think ESSER Funds Have Improved Their Schools, Poll Finds

By Libby Stanford — August 01, 2023 5 min read
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Voters in four key political battleground states say they haven’t seen improvements to their local schools despite an influx of tens of billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government, according to a new poll.

The poll, which sampled voters in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada—states that could be key to deciding next year’s presidential election—asked respondents whether they’ve seen improvements to their local schools since before the pandemic, which party they trust more on education issues, and whether they prefer public school choice or private school choice policies.

The findings from the poll released this week highlight the public’s perception of a limited impact from $190 billion in federal relief funds that have gone to schools since the start of the pandemic, making it the largest one-time federal investment in K-12 education. At the same time, voters said they noticed increased access to after-school and summer school programs, mental health supports, tutoring, and improved school facilities—areas in which many school districts invested their relief dollars.

Only 30 percent of respondents across the four states—33 percent of whom identified as Democrats, 36 percent as Republicans, and 31 percent as independent or other—said they’ve seen improvements in their local schools compared with prior to the pandemic. Of the respondents who are parents, 41 percent said the same, with 34 percent of parents saying they’ve seen no improvement to schools, 19 percent of parents saying schools are worse than they were before the pandemic, and 6 percent saying they are unsure whether there’s been improvement.

The poll was commissioned by the group Democrats for Education Reform, which over the years has pushed for policies like the expansion of public charter schools and the use of student performance in teacher evaluations, as well as candidates who support those policies. While the organization has “Democrats” in its name, it has attracted the ire of party activists who oppose its policies.

The pollster, Emerson College Polling, surveyed 1,200 registered voters—300 in each state—in mid-July. The poll has an overall margin of error of 2.7 percent, meaning actual response totals could fluctuate by that amount in either direction. The margin of error within individual states was 5.6 percent.

The results reveal mixed perceptions around the impact ESSER and other COVID-19 funds have had on public schools and suggest more needs to be done to communicate the value of that money, said Victoria Fosdal, vice president of communications at Democrats for Education Reform.

“Sometimes schools aren’t always good about communicating the things that they’re doing,” Fosdal said. “What can we do to make sure families are feeling the investments?”

Poll reveals voter perceptions of ESSER’s impact

There was one area of strong agreement among poll respondents: 86 percent said they either strongly agree or somewhat agree that students lost ground during the pandemic.

And 57 percent of respondents said they feel that students are mostly still behind in school because of the pandemic, while 26 percent said that students have mostly caught up from pandemic disruptions.

When asked about areas in which they’ve seen improvements, 44 percent said they’ve seen more access to after-school and summer school programs for students, 41 percent said they’ve seen additional mental health supports, and 37 percent said they’ve seen relief money used to expand access to tutoring, which has become one of the most popular uses of COVID-19 relief funding. Only 26 percent of respondents said they’ve seen new or better school buildings as a result of COVID-19 relief funding.

The results indicate that voters know broadly how schools are using relief money, but understanding of the potential impact of those funds is lacking, Fosdal said. That could play an important role in upcoming elections, as Democrats have been the driving force behind ESSER funding—no Republican voted for the American Rescue Plan Act, which included the largest round of ESSER funding. Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have consistently called for more oversight of how schools have spent that money.

“If parents aren’t seeing [improvements], there are questions that states should be asking and districts should be asking about what are they implementing? How are they communicating what they’re implementing?” Fosdal said.

Voters support public school choice over private school vouchers

The poll also offers a glimpse of voters’ attitudes toward a collection of state-level policies that have passed this year allowing more parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition or homeschooling expenses.

When asked whether they prefer creating more public school choice options—such as charter schools, career academies, and magnet schools—or a school voucher system “that allows parents the option of sending their child to a private school,” 68 percent of voters said they’d prefer public school choice options.

Democrats for Education Reform has long promoted charter schools and other forms of public school choice. The poll took place following legislative sessions in which the expansion of private school vouchers and education savings accounts—which send public per-pupil funds to families to help cover the costs of private school tuition, tutoring, and other education expenses—was a dominant theme in several Republican-led states.

“Especially as we’re hearing the increased conversation around choice, this is really an opportunity for Democrats to fully embrace and really vocally and enthusiastically embrace high-quality public school choice options,” Fosdal said.

DFER did not include traditional public schools as an option in the question about school choice. Fosdal said the organization may consider adding support for traditional public schools as an option in future polls.

Implications for upcoming election

DFER’s poll also found that Democrats have lost their traditional partisan edge on education issues in the four battleground states.

Some 36 percent of voters in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada trust Republicans more to “make sure public schools are preparing students for success after high school by ensuring they are teaching students to read and do math well.” Thirty-three percent of voters said they trust Democrats to do the same.

Meanwhile, voters said they’d trust Democrats more on other key election issues included in the poll—protecting women’s reproductive rights, safeguarding the environment, and reducing gun violence.

Fosdal believes the changing party dynamics around education have to do with the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as parents have become frustrated with worsening student achievement.

“We often see in politics there’s a pendulum swing in general when there’s frustration,” Fosdal said. “What we’re seeing now is just the frustration of not feeling heard and not seeing the change that they want.”

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