Despite perceptions of the public's widespread unhappiness with the slow reopening of California's schools last spring, most voters surveyed, including parents, gave the highest marks in a decade of polling to the state's public schools in general and their schools in particular.
On most issues in the survey, Democrats and Republicans generally disagreed. One notable issue was whether schools should spend more time teaching about the causes and consequences of racism and inequality.
At the same time, the survey respondents also expressed worry about the effects of the pandemic on children and said they'd strongly support various measures to accelerate student learning, including hiring counselors and providing intensive tutoring and summer school.
The independent, nonpartisan research center Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education released their ninth annual poll on education on July 8.
The survey firm Tulchin Research solicited views of 2,000 registered California voters, representative of the state's demographics and party affiliation, with an oversampling of 500 parents with children under 18 living at home. Surveys were conducted in English and Spanish.
Researchers chose May, with schools winding down after a partial return to in-person instruction, because it enabled participants to reflect on the year and look ahead, said Heather Hough, PACE's executive director.
Given widespread news reports showing anger and mistrust toward schools, Hough said she expected more criticism. Instead, a record 38 percent of voters overall and 53 percent of parents gave A or B grades to schools statewide; 51 percent of voters and 61 percent of parents gave A or B to their local public schools.
One of the researchers characterized this as “grading on a curve,” Hough said, giving credit to schools for the efforts they made during a difficult year.
The partisan disparity was wide among voters by party, however, with 29 percent of Republicans giving schools statewide an A or B and 41 percent giving a D or F, compared with 47 percent of Democrats giving an A or B and only 17 percent giving schools statewide a D or F. The rest gave schools a C.
The majority of voters and parents gave A or B to teachers and superintendents, and 69 percent of parents said they would encourage a young person to become a teacher, an increase from 60 percent from the last poll, which was taken pre-pandemic, in January 2020.
Voters were presented a list of the potential areas of concern because of the pandemic's impact on students and asked to rate them 1 to 10, with 10 being "very important." Voters overall cited students falling behind academically as the most pressing issue, with the impact on English learners and special education students a close second. Parents cited the impact on emotional and mental health as No. 1, which was third for all voters.
Voters’ experiences during the Covid pandemic varied significantly by income, and, to an extent, by race and ethnicity. Confirming what other surveys have indicated, lower-income families were the hardest hit: for families earning under $35,000 per year, 37 percent said their income worsened and 14 percent said it improved during the pandemic; for families earning more than $150,000, it was the opposite: 30 percent said their income had improved and 17 percent said it worsened.
Asked to describe their children's educational experience during the pandemic, 58 percent of families earning under $75,000 said it had gotten worse, compared with 48 percent of families earning more than $150,000; 39 percent of those earning more than $150,000 said it had gotten better, compared with 26 percent of families earning less than $35,000.
California voters reflected the tensions nationally on issues of race and politics, though they downplayed the divisions locally: 78 percent said the state has become more divided politically, and 70 percent said the state has become more divided on matters of race. But slightly fewer than half said those political and racial tensions had increased locally.
Asked if the problem of discrimination and violence based on racial and ethnic differences has gotten worse, 69 percent said it had statewide while 48 percent said it had locally; 64 percent of Black voters said the problem has worsened, compared with 46 percent of non-Black voters.
Voters were given a dozen educational issues and were asked to rank their importance, from 1 to 10 (very important). The top issue was reducing gun violence in schools, although the rate of incidents is small nationally and in California, with 65 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans ranking it very important.
The next four issues, all closely ranked, were making college more affordable, improving special education services, reducing the teacher shortage and supporting struggling schools. More Democrats than Republicans designated the issues to be very important. On improving education funding, for example, 43 percent of Democrats ranked it very important, compared with 25 percent of Republicans. The one exception was improving school discipline; a third of Republicans ranked it very important, compared with a quarter of Democrats.
Asked whether more or less time should be spent on "grade-appropriate" lessons on racism and inequality, 39 percent of Democrats backed giving the issues much more time compared with 10 percent of Republicans, while 37 percent of Republicans and 3 percent of Democrats said there should be much less time.
“Many Californians support steps to acknowledge and address persistent inequities, in the curriculum and otherwise, but stark partisan differences portend ongoing conflict in the pursuit of these goals,” the authors of the poll concluded. Along with Hough, they were Julie Marsh, a professor of education policy at USC Rossier School of Education; Jeannie Myung, director of policy research at PACE; David Plank, a senior fellow at PACE, and Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education.
On other questions:
- 69 percent of voters support requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for school-age children, once approved by the FDA and medical exemptions are allowed; 43 percent strongly favor the idea. Strongest in support were Democrats, high-income earners and Asian American voters. Least supporting were Republicans, low-income earners and Black voters, although in all groups, there was a majority support.
- 71 percent of parents and 59 percent of all voters favored making online learning from home an option for all students in California public schools, even after the pandemic ends.
- 58 percent of voters, but only 49 percent of parents favor the resumption of standardized testing, but 43 percent of parents want testing either eliminated (18 percent) or reduced, such as once in elementary school and once in high school. (In spring 2020, the tests for most students were canceled, and in spring 2021, they were optional for districts.)
John Fensterwald is a reporter for Edsource, a partner with Bay City News.