Photo by Mira Kireeva on Unsplash

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.

However, 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, they 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 PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education released their ninth annual poll on education on Thursday. 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% of voters overall and 53% of parents gave A or B grades to schools statewide; 51% of voters and 61% 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.

Credit: PACE/USC Rossier Poll

More Californians gave their local schools and school statewide an A or B grade in the 2021 survey than in any year since PACE and USC Rossier School of Education began their surveys in 2012. No survey was taken in 2017.

The disparity was wide among voters by party, however, with 29% of Republicans giving schools statewide an A or B and 41% giving a D or F, compared with 47% of Democrats giving an A or B and only 17% 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% of parents said they would encourage a young person to become a teacher, an increase from 60% 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% said their income worsened and 14% said it improved during the pandemic; for families earning more than $150,000, it was the opposite: 30% said their income had improved and 17% said it worsened.

Asked to describe their children’s educational experience during the pandemic, 58% of families earning under $75,000 said it had gotten worse, compared with 48% of families earning more than $150,000; 39% of those earning more than $150,000 said it had gotten better, compared with 26% of families earning less than $35,000.

Divided on race and politics

California voters reflected the tensions nationally on issues of race and politics, though they downplayed the divisions locally: 78% said the state has become more divided politically, and 70% 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% said it had statewide while 48% said it had locally; 64% of Black voters said the problem has worsened, compared with 46% 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% of Democrats and 37% 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% of Democrats ranked it very important, compared with 25% 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% of Democrats backed giving the issues much more time compared with 10% of Republicans, while 37% of Republicans and 3% 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% of voters support requiring Covid-19 vaccinations for school-age children, once approved by the FDA and medical exemptions are allowed; 43% 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% of parents and 59% of all voters favored making online learning from home an option for all students in California public schools, even after the pandemic ends.
  • 58% of voters, but only 49% of parents favor the resumption of standardized testing, but 43% of parents want testing either eliminated (18%) 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.)

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (3)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. John Thomas Flynn 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Independent, nonpartisan research center PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education. What a joke. Teachers allowed their unions to close their schools. It was their worst hour of any group during the pandemic. Great boost for vouchers and homeschooling though, the silver lining.

  2. Luis 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Not surprising, but does it tell the whole story? I have always believed survey data around this topic slants, especially when the predominant respondent are the upper middle class whites who, pre Covid-19, were content given the fact their kids do not get dropped off at inner city prison pipeline schools. What surprises me is how the upper white middle class, seeing how much they spend tax wise versus the reality and arrogance witnessed in … Read More

    Not surprising, but does it tell the whole story?

    I have always believed survey data around this topic slants, especially when the predominant respondent are the upper middle class whites who, pre Covid-19, were content given the fact their kids do not get dropped off at inner city prison pipeline schools.

    What surprises me is how the upper white middle class, seeing how much they spend tax wise versus the reality and arrogance witnessed in 2020 by the union did not turn on the teachers union, who are unfortunately the sole voice of teachers in the media.

    A matter of time??

  3. Robert Bartlett 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Sixty-nine percent of parents said they would encourage a young person to become a teacher. I wonder what the response would be if a qualification was added: Would you encourage changes to the state finance system, changes that would increase your tax burden, if they were tied directly to teacher retention and teacher preparation, especially retention? Another question: Would you encourage your son to become a teacher? A follow-up question to the parents' concern about … Read More

    Sixty-nine percent of parents said they would encourage a young person to become a teacher. I wonder what the response would be if a qualification was added: Would you encourage changes to the state finance system, changes that would increase your tax burden, if they were tied directly to teacher retention and teacher preparation, especially retention?

    Another question: Would you encourage your son to become a teacher? A follow-up question to the parents’ concern about improving special-education services: Would you encourage your child to become a special-education teacher? Your spouse? A relative? This survey seems to have been administered in NIMBYville. It’s full of NIMBY sentiments. I’m amazed and dubious on the concern about special-ed services. The mild-moderate population is only five percent of the student body. Those are the students that the typical family might have contact with. How would parents describe the services going to those students?

    Are parents even aware of the eligibility criteria for special-ed services? Some parents lately seem to think of those services as a free nanny during the school day or a cure for academic deficits. What do the parents want to improve? To get past NIMBY: Would you change the state finance system for the sake of improving special-ed services (i.e. the only lasting, real solution)? I was a special-ed teacher (highly-qualified) this school year (2020-2021) in an emergency Zoom-based virtual setting for a charter middle school.

    Many parents were in the dog-eat-dog mode and following the law of the juggle in their demands for resources. Other parents suffered in silence…and were left behind in the grab for resources. This survey should arrange follow-up interviews with probing questions that will reveal parents’ true attitudes, the ones manifested in their interactions with the schools. Thank you for the detailed coverage.