New polling shows COVID-19 shifted California voters’ opinions on schools

Majority think public schools are failing minority students, want more choice

By Chantal Lovell
June 2, 2021

June 2, 2021 – TUSTIN, Calif. – After more than a year of school closures, new polling suggests California voters – and importantly, parents – are ready for more choices in public education.

Statewide polling commissioned by the California Policy Center (CPC) found that, more than ever before, voters believe parents need greater choice in how their children are educated, and a majority would support a statewide ballot measure to accomplish this. They say public schools are failing poor and inner-city children, and breaking the public-school monopoly will help.

“California students in private schools – even Governor Gavin Newsom’s own children – returned to school in the fall. But  millions of California students are about to enter summer break with no promise that they’ll fully return to school come August,” said California Policy Center President Will Swaim. 

“California families with the resources already have school choice – they moved their children to private schools or paid for tutors to avoid the shutdowns. It’s kids from low-income families who are suffering most from districts that put union demands above student needs. Californians know this is wrong, and they’re ready for change.” 

Nationally, multiple states responded to the pandemic by giving parents a greater say in how their children are educated – often called “school choice” – even in places where such programs had been previously rejected. In California, where schools remain among the least open in the country, the California Policy Center wondered if attitudes toward education had shifted here as well.

“The evidence is in: the school closures are hurting children, their families and communities. Every day, we talk with parents – from rural Republicans who still fly MAGA flags, to self-described liberals on LA’s Westside – who are fed up with California teachers unions that refuse to go back to school,” Swaim said. “We know the California Legislature would never enact school choice reforms, but there’s such anger and frustration among parents whose children need to be back in school that we wondered if they might support school choice in California.”

The last time voters were given the option to weigh in on parental choice was with Proposition 38 in 2000, which would have created a voucher program. California voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, with more than 70% voting against. Since that time, opinions have dramatically shifted, and school choice programs have become more innovative.

Parents were asked specifically for their response to a proposal that would establish Education Savings Accounts. ESAs give parents a portion of the public education dollars spent on their child and allow them to use it for a wide variety of educational expenses, from tuition in private schools to tutoring. Fully 54% of respondents said they’d vote yes. Enthusiasm for ESAs was even higher among African-American and Hispanic likely voters, with 71% and 66% saying they’d vote yes, respectively:

A possible statewide initiative would use revenues currently dedicated to fund public education to establish Education Savings Accounts for every kindergarten through twelfth grade student that would allow parents to use those funds to enroll their student in public, private, charter or religious school, pay for tutoring and books, and to use any savings left after the student graduates from high school to pay for college. If an election was held today, would you vote yes, in favor or no, against the initiative establishing Education Savings Accounts in California? 

  • 54% yes, in favor
  • 12% depends/unsure
  • 34% no, against

Other questions in the poll suggest reasons for this dramatic shift in public opinion toward educational choice in California. 

  • Only 31% of voters think California public schools are doing an excellent or good job right now, compared with 42% prior to the pandemic. 
  • 69% of voters agree that, “Despite spending over $20,000 per student, California’s public schools are not performing well. We need to give parents better options to educate their children – especially when their school is failing.” 
  • 61%  of voters think minority students are being failed by public schools and that Education Savings Accounts would help them.
  • 61% of California voters think schools should be fully open now.
  • 59% of voters believe Education Savings Accounts would allow poorer families to help their kids, and that the pandemic showed there are alternatives to educating children outside traditional public schools. 

The polling was conducted by the national research firm Baselice & Associates, Inc. between May 12 and 17, 2021, and included responses from a representative sample of 800 California voters. Full voter profiles, demographics details, and response crosstabs may be viewed here. The full questionnaire and summary may be viewed here

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The California Policy Center is an educational nonprofit working to reduce public sector barriers to freedom and prosperity. For more, visit CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

To set up an interview, or for questions about the poll, contact:

Chantal Lovell

Communications Director

California Policy Center

Chantal@californiapolicy.org 

989-251-8388

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