An Early Christmas Present: New Research on Parental Satisfaction Across Educational Sectors

It’s almost Christmas, friends! I can’t wait to see what I got—though it may be a lump of coal given my fire-breathing posts over the last several months. Regardless of what I get, I have a special policy present for you: new poll data on school choice!

A couple of weeks ago, my Independence Institute friend Ross Izard highlighted some interesting new research in a Choice Media story of the day:

The data included in this particular analysis comes from the annual, nationally representative Education Next poll, which we discussed back in August. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff to learn from that poll, including the fact that school choice appears to be gradually changing into a Democratic issue. That’s actually not terribly surprising given the importance of educational choice to many primarily Democratic constituencies, though some progressive leaders have yet to get the message.

This new look at the data adds to the already interesting pool of conclusions stemming from the Education Next poll by comparing parent satisfaction on various measures across the traditional public, charter public, and private educational sectors. The results aren’t terribly surprising, but I think they do offer two important takeaways. I know this post is coming out a couple of days before Christmas, so I’ll eschew my normal nerdy policy writing and instead show you a series of colorful charts conveying the study’s findings. Who doesn’t like colorful pictures?

The quick, topline version of the findings above is that charter school parents tend to be more satisfied with their children’s schools than traditional public school parents, and private schools parents tend to be more satisfied than charter school parents.  Notably, the differences across sectors in many areas of parent satisfaction tend to be fairly large, especially when it comes to private schools versus traditional public schools. There also tend to be fewer behavioral issues in charter schools and private schools, though many charter parents would like to see more extracurricular.

Now, some of you will undoubtedly grab on to the first chart above, which indicates that private school parents tend to be white, college educated, and comparatively affluent. That’s not terribly surprising—despite their wide and growing prevalence, private school choice programs haven’t scaled to the  point that they can alter the overall demographics in an educational sector dependent on parents’ ability to pay tuition. But we should also note that despite widespread claims by charter opponents that that don’t serve the same tough populations of students as traditional public schools, charter parents tend to be less educated, less white, and less affluent.

And before any of you silly anti-choice policy wonks go on a tangent about how the satisfaction results are due entirely to demographics, you should note that the more detailed breakdown of results controls for education level, income, race, homeowner status, region and whether the respondent lives in an urban area. A few of the statistically significant results between the private and charter sectors lose their significance under these controls, but the significance of the differences between traditional public schools and schools of choice tends to remain. Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that parents who choose schools outside of the traditional public sector tend to be more satisfied with those schools. It’s almost as if choice, rather than geography-based school assignment, leads to happier parents… Go figure.

There are some caveats here that I should mention. First, the study finds greater variation among charter parents than traditional public parents when it comes to school location and teacher quality. The location satisfaction variation makes sense; many charter parents have to travel farther to a charter than they would to their neighborhood public school. The teacher quality piece, however, is interesting.

The authors theorize that this variation could be caused by the fact that:

… teacher hiring in charter schools is often less tightly regulated than it is in the district sector. Some charter schools may use their flexibility to recruit outstanding teachers, while others fall well short of that mark.

Given the very questionable link between teacher hiring regulations like licensing requirements (more on that in the coming weeks), I’m not sure I find that to be a particularly compelling argument. The easiest way to check it would be to compare charter school satisfaction variation on this measure with satisfaction variation in the private sector, which is the least heavily regulated of the three sectors.

If such an analysis found that private school parents, whose raw satisfaction with teacher quality eclipses that of traditional public and charter schools with a whopping 86 percent satisfied or very satisfied, we could safely hypothesize that light regulation might not be the culprit. Even if private school parents varied in their opinions on this measure to the same degree as charter parents, we could question the conclusion that increased hiring and firing regulation leads to higher parent satisfaction. Strangely, however, the study does not make this comparison. Maybe Little Eddie will send them a Christmas email asking for more information.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff buried in the Education Next study. I encourage you to bust out your Christmas pajamas, curl up in front of the fireplace, and peruse the results for yourself over Christmas. Maybe I’m the only one who does stuff like that. Education policy reading or not, I hope you enjoy your Christmas and New Year. See you in 2017!