by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Every January, the Civitas Poll focuses on education, and the January 2021 edition is no different. The most notable change in this year’s poll is, of course, the inclusion of questions related to education arrangements during the pandemic. While support for school choice remains strong, the poll results suggest that North Carolinians have struggled to adapt to haphazard school reopening plans.
As in previous polls, respondents believe that parents should be in charge of their children’s education. Over 77 percent say that parents are best suited to determine where a child should attend school, while only 12 percent put their faith in local school boards to make that decision. And if given the resources to select the school of their choice, less than a third of parents would choose to send their children to a traditional public school. Nearly half would opt for either a religious or nonsectarian private school.
Given the overwhelming support for parental autonomy, it is not surprising that private school voucher programs and public charter schools fared well in the poll. Currently, 318 special-needs children participate in the state’s education savings account (ESA) program. A remarkable 72 percent of respondents support the ESA concept. In addition, North Carolina has nearly 200 charter schools enrolling more than 125,000 students, and over half of the adults surveyed for the Civitas Poll favor charters.
Another private school choice program, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, is under attack by the North Carolina Association of Educators, a cabal of public school advocacy organizations, and elected Democrats, including Gov. Roy Cooper. This program provides modest private school vouchers to nearly 15,000 children from low- and moderate-income families. The Civitas Poll finds that, despite the meritless lawsuits and a callous opposition campaign, the general public is overwhelmingly supportive of the program.
Over 66 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat back the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and only around 25 percent oppose it. Naturally, Republicans are more likely to approve of the program, but a surprising number of Democrats also support it. Overall, approximately 60 percent of Democrats back Opportunity Scholarships, including 35 percent who strongly favor them.
Opponents of educational freedom should note that there is overwhelming bipartisan support for both public and private school choice in North Carolina.
Speaking of Cooper, a plurality of respondents (45.9%) disapproved of how he handled school reopening during the pandemic. That said, the responses appeared to reflect loyalty to a political party rather than an impartial assessment of the governor’s performance. Around 56 percent of Democrats approved of Cooper’s reopening strategy, while 67 percent of Republicans disapproved. A plurality also disapproved of the way that school districts handled reopening. Democrats were much more likely to approve of their school district reopening plan than Republicans. Of course, the survey does not reveal how much respondents know about school reopening rules and guidelines.
But the real divide between those who approve and disapprove of reopening plans becomes apparent when parsing responses by income. While 40 percent of those who made over $100,000 approved of their school district reopening plan, only around 29 percent of those who made less than $50,000 approved. Presumably, middle- and upper-income families had an easier time managing slapdash school reopening plans because their jobs afforded greater flexibility than the jobs of those on the lower end of the income scale.
The impact of COVID-19 on families crosses demographic groups and political affiliations. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say that they had to spend additional money on their children’s education during the pandemic. About six out of 10 had to modify their work routine significantly or leave a job to accommodate their children’s education. Nearly four out of 10 changed or considered changing their children’s schools. Interestingly, Democrats and self-identified liberals were less likely than Republicans and conservatives to contemplate or initiate a change in schooling for their children. The contrast appears to reflect different degrees of faith in the ability of Gov. Cooper and school boards to craft suitable reopening plans.
Now that the 2021 session of the NC General Assembly has begun in earnest, lawmakers would be wise to develop policies consistent with the findings of the Civitas Poll. Families continue to struggle to manage their children’s education through the pandemic and overwhelmingly want a larger role in controlling it. To help them, our elected officials need to cut through the noise of groups that dishonestly claim to represent the interests of all North Carolina public school students.