Huge Majority of Families Says Local District School Is Not Their First Choice

Published January 12, 2018

“More than eight out of 10 American students attend public district schools, but in our interviews, only about three out of 10 parents said they would choose a district school as a first preference,” report the authors of “2017 Schooling in America Survey,” published by EdChoice. “To be precise, 42 percent would prefer private school; 33 percent, a district school; 15 percent, a charter school; 7 percent, a home school. Small town and rural respondents were significantly more likely than urbanites or suburbanites to prefer to homeschool their children.”

ESA Support Grows

The great majority of families in the United States support the concept of education savings accounts (ESAs), the survey found. ESAs grant parents access to the money allocated for their children’s government school education, to use on approved educational alternatives such as homeschooling textbooks or private school tuition.

“When given a description of ESAs, a flexible type of educational choice program, seven out of 10 Americans said they were in favor of ESAs,” the researchers reported. “The margins of general support (+52 points) and strong support (+25 points) are large. We observed a noticeable jump (19 percentage points) in support for ESAs when compared to last year’s survey.”

Preferring Smaller Federal Role

Mike Shaw, an EdChoice research assistant and coauthor of the study, says the researchers found most people think the federal government shouldn’t be heavily involved in education.

“We provided a long list of issues and tasks that the federal government has at least had a limited role in recently and historically, and a whopping six out of 10 respondents at the least said that the federal government should play a major role in things like funding military families, providing funding so students with disabilities can access quality education, ensure student’s civil rights, things like that,” Shaw said. “But on a broad sense, only 3 percent of Americans said that education itself should be a top priority for the federal government.”

‘Very Open’ to Alternatives

Paul DiPerna, vice president of research and innovation for EdChoice and a coauthor of the study, says he and his fellow researchers found there is a strong, nationwide desire for education choice.

“This year we had a special focus on understanding the views and experiences of small-town and rural residents,” DiPerna said. “I think the conventional wisdom is that local public district schooling is sacred for this group, even more so than for suburbanites and urbanites. And our polling shows that on average they do have generally favorable views about their school districts and public schools. But we also learned they are very open to other types of schooling and educational choice policies. For example, 74 percent of small town or rural respondents said they supported ESAs, slightly higher than suburbanites and urbanites.

“I feel like these results should compel us to toss away some of our conventional assumptions about folks living in less-populated areas of the country,” DiPerna said.

‘Aren’t Getting What They Want’

Drew Catt, director of state research and policy analysis for EdChoice and a survey coauthor, says the annual report shows similar results every year indicating parent dissatisfaction with government schools.

“Although I wouldn’t consider it an emerging trend, one finding that has been consistent over the years that I don’t think gets enough attention is how many parents aren’t getting what they want when it comes to the type of school they would prefer for their children,” Catt said. “For the approximately one-third of the parents that would choose a public district school, I would say that they are getting what they want, considering that based on the most recent federal data 83 percent of K–12 students are in public district schools.”

Support Strong for ESAs

DiPerna says it would be in lawmakers’ interest to establish ESAs.

“Based purely on the results, I would say education savings accounts [are a policy issue lawmakers should focus on],” DiPerna said. “Seven out of 10 respondents said that they favored ESAs, and a much smaller percentage said they opposed. And the margin, the difference, between those who favored and opposed ESAs was 52 points. When you see these gaps of 50-plus points, that’s huge. That suggests a strong likelihood for the general public to support ESAs.”

Limited Knowledge of Choice

Catt says he was surprised by how little the general public knows about education choice.

“The proportion of respondents that said that they don’t know about school choice policies or didn’t provide an answer [was a surprise],” Catt said. “We can see, based on the initial question where we just asked about the type of policy prior to actually providing the information, that about two out of five respondents didn’t really know or couldn’t offer an answer about ESAs. It was two out of five for vouchers, and, even though charter schools have been around about a quarter of a century, there were still about a quarter of the respondents that—prior to being provided with a definition—didn’t know about or didn’t provide an answer about charter schools.”

Teresa Mull ([email protected]is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute. 


Paul DiPerna, Michael Shaw, and Andrew D. Catt, “2017 Schooling in America,” EdChoice, November 28, 2017: