John Donne wrote, “send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Looking at the results of EdChoice’s most recent national poll of public opinion on education, the bells are tolling, and it is for schooling.
Public opinion on the direction of schooling and the efforts being made to cope with the coronavirus pandemic had held remarkably steady for most of 2020. In some cases, opinions about schooling and teaching had even become more positive in the wake of the coronavirus. That all changed in November. EdChoice’s monthly poll was in the field from November 12-18, and the nationally representative sample of 2,200 Americans had clearly changed their minds.
· The percentage of Americans who think that the education system is going in the “right direction” dropped to 23%, down 10 points from October and 13 points from its peak back in April. These trends held when respondents were asked about their state and local school districts as well. Favorability ratings for both dropped seven points since October.
· The percentage of respondents who think that education spending is “too low” has trended downward all year. In January, 64% of Americans thought that education funding was too low. By November, it was down to 51%. When given information about how much schools actually spend, the percentage of respondents saying that it is too low is down eight points since January and 15 points from its peak in April.
· The percentage of Americans who think teacher pay is “too low” is down 6 points from January. When given information about how much teachers actually make, it is up 2 points since January, but down 20 points from its peak back in April.
Only 42% of parents said that they were comfortable sending their children back to school, down 11 points from October.
· It isn’t just public schooling. Parents’ “very favorable” views of homeschooling dropped to 27%, down 9 points from October and 16 points from its peak in July.
· Pandemic podding was down as well, with only 15% of parents saying that they were participating in a pod, down 16 points from October.
I’d like to offer three thoughts.
First, maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. In addition to asking questions about education, we also asked about the response to the coronavirus from institutions like the federal government, state government, local government, small businesses, and the like. Across the board, opinions of institutions dropped in November. With a pandemic raging and thousands of people dying every day, this shouldn’t come as a shock. It is possible that much of the negativity about schooling is an echo of the general disgust with the handling of the coronavirus and pessimism about the direction of the country in general.
The issue of safety looms large as well. November saw a huge drop in the percentage of parents who thought it was safe for their children to return to school. Again, this probably shouldn’t surprise us. Cases exploded across the country before and while the poll was in the field, and those rapid increases in case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths clearly weighed on parents’ minds.
Second, it is clear that a lot of the positive sentiment we saw in April was a version of “rally around the flag.” In the April administration of our survey, we saw big spikes on a host of measures expressing positivity about public schools and public school teachers. Folks thought schools were responding well. They thought teachers deserved a raise. That appears to have evaporated.
Similarly, we saw a huge spike in favorable opinions towards homeschooling over the summer, perhaps as folks had optimism that they could do better educating their children than traditional public schools could. That appears to have disappeared as well.
Parents and the body politic rallied around schools back in April, but that goodwill slowly eroded as the pandemic wore on. Is that the fault of schools failing to adequately cope with the coronavirus or simply a natural tendency to return to normal after a short burst of solidarity at the outset of a crisis? We don’t know.
Third, it is possible that the effect of the pandemic will be smaller than many think. If we had only administered our survey in January and then again in November, some of the trends we observed would be evident, but most wouldn’t. The percentage of people who think the education system is on the right track changed a single percentage point from January to November. Roughly the same percentage of people when given information about how much teachers are paid think they deserve a raise. The percentage of people with a very positive view of homeschooling is about the same as it was before the pandemic.
It is quite fashionable today to say that the coronavirus changed everything in education, that schools will never go back to what they were before the virus swept across our land. But maybe not. Maybe once a vaccine is broadly distributed, things will go back to roughly where they were before. People will have the same opinions of schools that they did before we’d ever heard of Covid-19. The data suggest that is at least a plausible future scenario.
We will continue to poll Americans every month. Perhaps things will change in the new year.
This piece first ran here at Forbes.