The Schooling in America Survey: What do Americans think of school choice?

AIE  by Natalie Runkle

At AEI’s June 30 event, Paul DiPerna of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice presented just-released results from the annual Schooling in America Survey. Interviews with 1,002 American adults provided insights into widespread perceptions of K-12 education, school choice initiatives, school types, and other topics in education reform.

Most respondents (60%) felt negatively about the current direction of K-12 education, and school choice reforms garnered majority support. Respondents viewed education savings accounts (ESAs) most favorably (62% approval), followed by school vouchers (61%) and tax-credit scholarships (60%). Charter schools experienced a dip in popularity compared to previous years, receiving only 53% approval.

Source: 2015 Schooling in America Survey, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Among respondents’ preferred school types, private schools were most popular (41%), followed by public (36%), charter (12%), and homeschooling (9%). By contrast, US Department of Education statistics show that only 9%, 4%, and 3% of students are enrolled in private, charter, and homeschooling, respectively. The vast majority (84%) attend traditional public schools.

Source: 2015 Schooling in America Survey, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Source: 2015 Schooling in America Survey, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

Of the approximately 250 school parents surveyed, many of those preferring private, charter, or homeschooling cited education quality and individualized learning as their primary rationales. A plurality of those who chose public schools valued diversity and socialization.

After the survey presentation, DiPerna and panelists Matthew Chingos, Kara Kerwin, and Gerard Robinson considered the results’ possible explanations and implications.

The panelists concurred that students reap the benefits of school choice only when parents can easily understand and access a variety of options. Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, said that in her experience, clear explanations of school choice reforms are often all it takes to get parents on board. Empowered and informed parents are more than capable of choosing wisely for their children, she said. Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also pointed out that simply offering choices is not enough. For some families, transportation costs and complicated logistics can be as prohibitive as not providing choice at all, he said.

When asked how school choice will affect public education, the panelists agreed that choice does not threaten the public school system, but merely seeks to create a healthy marketplace for education reform. Robinson, a resident fellow at AEI, predicted that as the school choice movement grows, public schools will remain the norm. The purpose of school choice, he said, is not to destroy public education, but to prompt its improvement and diversification. Kerwin agreed that if parents have choices, public schools will better themselves and hopefully remain viable options.

Looking forward, DiPerna and the panelists also offered ideas for future, more targeted studies. As school choice options grow, it will be increasingly important to understand, inform, and cater to the preferences of diverse parent demographics. Open conversations and clear understanding of parents’ wishes will help educators and reformers create schools that are both high-quality and desirable. For example, while parents may need help seeing the value of standardized testing results, educators may also have to acknowledge parents’ emphasis on school culture.

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