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2021 Education Next Survey Reveals Parental Support for School Covid-Safety Measures Despite Vaccination Hesitancy
Plus, support for policy reforms wanes as public craves return to normalcy
August 31, 2021 (CAMBRIDGE, Mass.)—While a large percentage of parents support Covid-safety measures for students, many are reluctant to vaccinate their children, the 15th annual Education Next survey of American public opinion on education policy finds.
Support for policy reforms, such as school choice or free college, is falling among both Republicans and Democrats, suggesting a sweeping desire for a return to normalcy. Despite an apparent decline in district enrollment last fall, the size of each of the four school sectors—district, private, charter, and homeschooled—has largely returned to spring 2020 levels.
Among the key findings:
- Vaccine hesitancy and safety measures. A bare majority of parents say they “probably” or “definitely” would vaccinate their child, while another third of parents say they “probably” or “definitely” would not. Vaccine hesitancy, however, is not clearly driven by dismissal of the threat posed by Covid-19—many parents support measures to protect their children from infection at school. Nearly half of parents favor mask requirements when schools open in the fall, and about a third oppose the practice. A mask requirement is more popular in the minority community than among white adults. Nearly two thirds of parents say high school students should have the option of learning fully online, and nearly half say the same for elementary school students. However, fewer than a third of parents support social distancing requirements at school.
- Return to normalcy and school reform. Enthusiasm for most policy reforms has waned regardless of partisan support. When compared to 2019 responses, support in 2021 declined significantly for increasing district expenditures, raising teacher salaries, similar standards across states, charter schools, universal and low-income vouchers, and more. Support for free attendance to four-year, public colleges saw the biggest decline since 2019 (from 60% in favor to 43%).
- Public institutions. Though evaluations of local schools have been improving substantially since 2008, when respondents are asked to grade public institutions, schools receive lower evaluations than do either the police force or the post office, both when respondents are asked for an assessment of operations in their local community and across the country. In general, Black Americans are more critical of the nation’s police than others, and white Americans are more skeptical of the nation’s schools than others.
- Partisan differences. Partisan differences in education opinion have expanded since the start of the pandemic but vary by issue. On topics such as school spending, teacher salary levels, merit pay, Common Core, and schooling for undocumented immigrants, partisanship reigns. But on student testing for school accountability and school choice, partisanship is less among members of the two political parties than among many representatives active in state legislatures and in Congress. Republicans are more ready to embrace merit pay for teachers, charter schools, and universal vouchers programs; while Democrats are more inclined toward boosting school expenditure levels, lifting teacher salaries, and offering free preschool and college.
- Sector differences. Differences in students’ experiences between private, district, and charter school sectors persist. Students attending private schools returned to school more rapidly than either students at district or charter schools, as reported by parents in November, a difference that continues until spring. Students at charters were more likely to learn remotely than children at district schools in both November and June. Parents of private-school students are less likely to report learning loss, negative impacts from Covid safety measures, or a decline in their child’s emotional well-being. Still, parents across all sectors registered a high level of satisfaction with their child’s school during the pandemic year: more than three-quarters of district-school children had an experience that the parent rated satisfactorily, a percentage that rose to 92% and 81% for children attending private and charter schools, respectively.
- The Biden effect. The Biden Administration has taken a strong position on two large contemporary issues: government funding for universal preschool and free tuition at public two-year colleges. Yet the impact of Biden’s endorsements is more muted that that of the two prior presidents. Among Democrats, support for government funding for preschool and community college is robust, and support does not differ significantly between those informed of Biden’s views and those left uninformed. Neither do the views of Republicans, who are generally opposed to both policy proposals, change once informed of President Biden’s position.
Methodology. The total sample for the survey (3,156 respondents) includes two overlapping samples: a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults (1,410 respondents); a nationally representative sample of American parents, stepparents, or foster parents of at least one child living in the respondent’s household who is in a grade from kindergarten through 12th grade (2,155 respondents). The parent sample includes oversamples of parents with at least one child in a charter school, parents with at least one child in a private school, Black parents, and Hispanic parents. The survey was conducted in May and June 2021.
About the Authors: Michael B. Henderson is assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and director of its Public Policy Research Lab. David M. Houston is assistant professor at the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University, Director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, and Senior Editor of Education Next. Martin R. West is academic dean and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Editor-in-chief of Education Next.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit educationnext.org.