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Public views on K-12 education can inform future policies and should be considered to drive lasting improvement to the country’s education system.
These views were recently captured in a report titled, “2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K-12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government.” The report is the fifth installment of the Schooling in America Survey, published by EdChoice.
One thousand American adults were asked a series of questions related to public opinion on K-12 education in a 2017 national telephone survey developed and conducted by EdChoice in collaboration with Braun Research, Inc. Some of the questions included:
1. What are parents’ experiences in K-12 education and local schooling? How satisfied are parents with different types of schooling experiences?
2. What are the levels, margins, and intensities of support and opposition for different types of K-12 educational choice policies, including education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarships?
The key findings are revealing.
School Type Preferences & Satisfaction
Although most Americans’ schooling experiences are with public district schools (more than eight out of 10 students attend public district schools), only about three out of 10 parents said they would choose these schools as their first preference.
And while the satisfaction levels of all school types were high, satisfaction with public district schools ranked last.
Of parents who have enrolled a child in a given school type, current and former school parents expressed high levels of satisfaction with all school types: 93 percent were satisfied with private schools; 90 percent were satisfied with homeschooling; 75 percent were satisfied with public charter schools; and 73 percent were satisfied with public district schools.
Educational Choice Policies & Reforms
Parents were also polled on various educational choice policies, including education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarships.
Education Savings Accounts
Education savings accounts (ESAs) in K-12 education are an innovative approach to providing school choice options for families by giving them direct control over their child’s share of education funding. The money to fund these accounts doesn’t come out of parents’ pockets; rather, it comes from tax dollars the government already sets aside for every child’s education. With ESAs, the money follows the child and gives families the freedom to seek out the best educational opportunities for their students. These accounts also give families with financial restraints access to more schooling options and the advantage of tailoring an education to their children’s specific needs.
There are currently five states with active ESA programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Here is how the report describes ESAs:
An “education savings account” in K-12 education—often called an ESA—establishes for parents a government-authorized savings account with restricted, but multiple uses for educational purposes. Parents can then use these funds to pay for: school tuition, tutoring, online education programs, therapies for students with special needs, textbooks or other instructional materials, and/or future college expenses.
ESAs are one of the fastest growing forms of parental choice, but not everyone understands them. The survey asked respondents a pair of questions about the accounts to gauge support levels. The first question asked for an opinion of education savings accounts without giving a description. “On this baseline question, 45 percent of respondents said they favored ESAs and 12 percent said they opposed the idea,” the report confirmed. The interviewers then gave a description of ESAs (quoted above) and asked the question again, revealing that Americans tend to be twice as likely to support ESAs than to oppose them when they know what they are.
Given a description of ESAs, Americans are much more inclined to support this choice-based education reform than they are to oppose it. Seven out of 10 Americans (71%) said they favor ESAs, compared to the much smaller percentage that were in opposition (19%).
Supporters said access to schools that have better academics or more freedom and flexibility for parents were the most important reasons they favor ESAs. Opponents dislike ESAs because they said the accounts “divert funding away from public schools.” There are funding limits for ESAs, and while those limits vary from state to state, they are usually a percentage of what the state would spend to educate the student in a public school.
So, education savings accounts do allow a student to take their per-pupil funding outside the traditional public school system, but this does not necessarily leave public schools worse off if the funding public schools lose per student is less than the marginal cost of educating a student. Meaning, public schools could be left with fewer total dollars, but they would have more dollars per student.
Tax-credit scholarships give individuals or businesses a tax credit that reduces the total amount of a tax owed to the government. (During the last legislative session, both the Minnesota House and Senate passed an omnibus tax reform bill containing a tax-credit scholarship policy— “Opportunity Scholarships”—but it was vetoed by Governor Dayton. These scholarships would have been available to low- and middle-income children to attend a school of their choice. Because funding would come from private contributions, the proposal would not have taken any funding away from the $18 billion that was already being spent on K-12 public schools in the state.)
There are currently 17 states with tax-credit scholarship programs—Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia.
The Schooling in America report asked respondents their views on tax-credit scholarships after providing the following description:
In a “tax-credit scholarship system,” a government gives tax credits to individuals or businesses if they contribute money to nonprofit organizations that distribute private school scholarships. A nonprofit organization gives a scholarship to a qualifying student who would like to enroll in a private school of their choice, including both religious and non-religious schools. The student’s parent then uses the scholarship to pay partial or full tuition for the chosen private school.
Sixty-two percent of Americans said they support a tax-credit scholarship system, whereas 26 percent oppose it. The survey also confirmed Latinos (76 percent) were “significantly more likely to voice support” than whites (59 percent).
What Americans want and what we get regarding our education system are not completely in sync. It is important these voices are heard and considered as the nationwide dialogue around education continues.