News: Quick Takes

Civitas Poll: Voters disapprove of the way Cooper, districts have handled school reopening during pandemic

Editor’s note: This story was updated 2:30 Thursday, Jan. 28, to include comments from panelists who took part in a discussion about the Civitas Poll.

North Carolina voters don’t approve of the governor’s restrictive rules on school reopening, and they want their children to return to the classroom.

A Civitas Poll released Thursday, Jan. 28, shows 46% of likely registered voters give the governor a thumbs-down on the issue, with only 39% giving him a thumbs-up, according to a news release on the poll.

The Civitas Poll is presented by the John Locke Foundation. The findings come during National School Choice Week.

Those polled are also unhappy with their respective school district. Of those polled, 45% say they either strongly or somewhat disapprove of the way their district has handled reopening, or lack thereof. 

“Approval of local district actions sat at just 34%, five points lower than the governor,” the release said. “Nearly seven in 10 believe instructional changes made in response to the pandemic have had a negative impact on student learning.”

Bob Luebke is a senior fellow for the Center for Effective Education at JLF. He called “stunning” some of the poll numbers, including those about reopening decisions by boards and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Luebke; Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education; and Donald Bryson, JLF president, took part in a virtual luncheon Thursday to discuss results from the poll.

“While Gov. Roy Cooper has had high approval ratings over the past four years, voters are running out of patience with his handling of reopening schools,” Bryson said.

Hispanics strongly disapprove of the governor’s actions, with 59% of those polled expressing concerns over the shutdowns. Republican voters, as well as those living in rural North Carolina, also disapproved of Cooper’s actions.

“Voters, especially parents, feel that families should have a greater say in their child’s educational environment, and COVID-19 has emphasized how out of touch the Cooper administration is on this issue,” Bryson said.

COVID, said Luebke, casts a long shadow on the data. And, Stoops said, some of voters’ responses tracked along political affiliations and ideology, but he said he’s encouraged that people are willing to recognize Cooper and the boards could have — and probably should have — done better. Children and teens are suffering, and that’s a problem.

The conversation needs to get louder, the panelists said.

“We’re not talking about student learning enough in North Carolina,” Stoops said. “We need to be talking about learning loss, and we need a plan to address learning loss. There is no plan at this point, and I’m still waiting for one to address the learning loss, which everyone realizes is a reality.”

What role should a parent play in choosing where their child attends school, pollsters asked.

An overwhelming majority — 82%  — agree parents should have that ability. 

“Only 32% of respondents said they would choose a traditional public school for their child if location and cost were not a factor, and just 7.5% gave their local public school an A grade,” the release says of the poll.

The poll included a question about charter schools, specifically: “Charter schools are public schools which are not governed by a local school board but by an independent board. While they are subject to the same academic requirements as traditional public schools, charter schools are exempt from certain administrative regulations. Do you favor or oppose charter schools?”

The poll found about 59% of the voters favor charter schools, with 32.5% saying they “strongly” favor charter schools. Just 28% opposed, compared to 31% of those who responded to the poll last year. North Carolina began allowing charter schools in 1996 and now, Stoops said, the state has more than 200, enrolling some 125,000 students.

Stoops said an information gap remains, about what charter schools are and about what they do. As charters grow, however, that gap is closing. People are beginning to recognize, said Stoops, that the reason North Carolina has so many charter schools — diverse charter schools — is largely due to the efforts of Republicans lawmakers.

The bottom line is this: “The money should follow the child,” Stoops said.

Removing location and costs as factors, two out of three respondents (65%) chose an alternative learning environment for their child: private religious or parochial school (23%), private nonreligious school (20%), charter school (14%), and homeschool (8%). Even more – 72% – favor education savings accounts in K-12 education. ESAs create a savings account using government funds for parents with restricted uses for educational purposes.

An overwhelming majority of respondents, 77%, said parents and guardians are best suited to determine where a child should attend school. 

The response to that question is consistently overwhelming and intense, said Luebke. “It’s an issue without question that’s decided,” he said. “Parents are the best people to choose.”

The survey also addressed the N.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which, the poll said, “provides government funded vouchers of up to $4,200 to low- and moderate-income students that can be applied to tuition at a private school of their parents’ choice. In 2020 over 14,000 students participated in this program. Do you favor or oppose the opportunity scholarship program?” 

Some 66% percent of voters strongly favored the scholarships, with just 25% opposed. About 9% weren’t sure. 

Luebke says he’s bothered by the fact the word “controversial” precedes “Opportunity Scholarships” in left-leaning news reporting.

“These results should dismiss those arguments,” Luebke said. “This isn’t a blip.

The depth of support is there, the panelists agreed.

Said Bryson, “Fortunately, North Carolina has created an educational environment, particularly over the past 10 years, that allows families to access other educational options. Now we are seeing families move into schools of choice in numbers we’ve never seen before.”

The Civitas Poll was conducted by Harper Polling, a Cygnal Co., Jan. 20 to Jan. 24, It surveyed 950 likely registered voters in North Carolina and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.18%. Known registered voters were interviewed via interactive voice response, text messaging, and email invitation.

Other surveys have supported school choice, as well, including one done recently by Beck Research and released by the American Federation for Children. Another study, conducted by the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, says it appears safe to reopen schools for in-person instruction in counties with lower rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations.