Opinion | Who’s Unhappy With Schools? The Answer Surprised Me.

Tucked into a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore about the spate of school board fights over just about everything was a statistic that caught my eye. Despite all the ink spilled lately about clashes over masking, critical race theory and which books to assign (or ban), American parents are happy overall with their children’s education. Lepore explains:

In “Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice Is Really About,” the education scholars Sigal R. Ben-Porath and Michael C. Johanek point out that about nine in 10 children in the United States attend public school, and the overwhelming majority of parents — about eight in 10 — are happy with their kids’ schools.

Though I am quite happy with my children’s public school, am surrounded by parents who are mostly happy with their kids’ public schools and, when I was a kid, attended a public school that my parents were basically happy with, I was still surprised the number was that high.

I would have thought that the latest numbers about parental satisfaction might be lower because of all the pandemic-related chaos. But according to Gallup, which has tracked school satisfaction annually since 1999, in 2021, “73 percent of parents of school-aged children say they are satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child is receiving.” More parents were satisfied in 2021 than they were in 2013 and 2002, when satisfaction dipped into the 60s, and in 2019, we were at a high point in satisfaction — 82 percent — before the Covid pandemic dealt schools a major blow.

Digging deeper into the Gallup numbers revealed that the people who seem to be driving the negative feelings toward American schools do not have children attending them: Overall, only 46 percent of Americans are satisfied with schools. Democrats, “women, older adults and lower-income Americans are more likely than their counterparts to say they are satisfied with K-12 education,” Gallup found. My hypothesis is that it’s a bit like the adage about Congress: People tend to like their own representatives (that’s why they keep sending them back year after year) but tend to have a dim view of Congress overall.

Polling done by the Charles Butt Foundation shows a similar dynamic playing out in Texas, a state where book bans have been well publicized and an anti-critical race theory bill was signed into law in December. The third annual poll, which was of 1,154 Texas adults, found:

The share of public school parents giving their local public schools an A or B grade is up 12 percentage points in two years to 68 percent in the latest statewide survey on public education by the Charles Butt Foundation. In contrast with the increase among parents, there’s a decline in school ratings among those without a child currently enrolled in K-12 schools. Forty-eight percent of nonparents now give their local public schools A’s and B’s, versus 56 percent a year ago.

This isn’t to say that our education system, broadly speaking, is humming along perfectly. There are so many ways it can improve, particularly in serving students in schools with higher poverty rates and those with physical disabilities and learning differences. But it does mean that we should take stories with a grain of salt when they present the American education system as a fact-free zone, no longer focused on teaching the basics, that parents are or should be fleeing from in any significant or sustained way.

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