Parent views on their child's school, state-backed school choice programs and teacher salaries were among topics addressed in a newly released survey by the University of Arkansas' Office for Education Policy.
The research office conducted its first parent survey late in 2021, asking a representative sample of 500 Arkansas parents of school-age children for their views on different education topics. Survey results were published last week.
"My point of this whole survey is making sure that we hear from parents who are a really important part of our communities and our school systems," Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the education policy office, said about the motives for the questionnaire. "We should be considering what outcomes they want, and what kids want and need when we are making these decisions."
Some of the highlighted responses:
• A majority of parents said their children were learning more in the 2021-22 school year than they had in 2020-21 despite the impact of the covid-19 virus on both school years.
• Respondents strongly endorsed state support for school choice options -- including private school tuition -- and that support came from people across political affiliations.
• A large majority of parents responding to the survey expect their children to attend college but in large part don't want their children to become teachers.
• Parents are divided by political party on whether schools should be allowed to teach about how racism can exist in society.
• At least half of parents underestimated the average salaries of teachers in their communities.
• Parents showed support for their child's own school, support for career and technical education and for universal pre-kindergarten classes.
Arkansas schools were open to students in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 covid-19 school years with only some short closures due to virus outbreaks. Virtual and hybrid school options were also available both years so that students could learn at home, with more families taking advantage of virtual learning in the first year of the pandemic.
A majority 59% of all parents surveyed indicated that their student was learning much more or more in 2021-22 than in the 2020-21 school year. Nearly 82% of private school parents, who made up 7% of the parents surveyed, said their student was learning more in the second year of the pandemic as compared to the first year.
Results from the state-required Aspire exams backed up the parent perception of better learning in 2021-22 but that achievement still lagged.
"Assessment results from public school students reflected sharp declines in 2020-21," the survey summary noted. "Preliminary public-school assessment data from the 2021-22 school year indicates ... a slightly higher percentage of students were meeting grade level expectations in math, English Language Arts, and science. Arkansas students are still performing well below 2018-19 [or pre-covid-19] levels."
Parents of traditional public school students constituted 66% of the survey respondents.
That public school group grew to 80% when parents of public charter and magnet school students were added. About 11% of respondents were parents of home school students.
McKenzie said 88% of the parents surveyed supported or strongly supported the concept of the Arkansas Succeed Scholarship that enables students with special needs or those from foster homes or those connected to military families to get taxpayer money in the form of vouchers for private school tuition.
Similarly, 88% of parents surveyed indicated support for the 2022-established kindergarten-through-12th-grade tax credit scholarship program, where donations from individuals and businesses will fund private scholarships for students from lower-income families.
"Seventy-three [percent] of Arkansas parents surveyed indicated that they would be very likely or likely to use one of these scholarships to enroll a child in their household in a private school if eligibility restrictions were not a factor," according to the Office of Education Policy survey report.
"The most common reason for interest in using a scholarship was quality of private school education."
McKenzie said in an interview that she was surprised by the strong support shown for making resources available for students to attend private schools. That support was consistent among parents from across political ideologies, she said.
"Parents are telling us that, yes, they really like their kids' local schools and, yes, they feel welcome in their kids' local schools; yes, they are happy with the instruction; and, yes, they would likely use the opportunity -- if they had the opportunity -- to have more choice about where they send their kids," she said.
Other respondents in the survey said they wouldn't send their children to private schools, McKenzie observed. They just didn't have any interest in private schools.
"It's not like everybody is waiting at the gate for this opportunity," she added.
The survey did not ask parents about how to measure the success of the private schools that participate in the state-supported voucher or tax credit programs or how the schools are being held accountable for student learning.
"I feel we need to make sure that the schools being chosen are being effective," McKenzie said. "How you measure can be a variety of things. Most school-choice people say parents vote with their feet and if the seats are full then the school is doing what it needs to be doing.
"We can't make kids at private schools take the same state tests as everybody else so it gets a little bit confusing on how to measure effectiveness," McKenzie continued. "Just as long as we are keeping our eye on that ball and making sure kids are getting a high-quality education wherever they are going is important."
The survey asked parents what they believed to be the average salary of teachers in their child's school.
"Across the sample, 50% of parents surveyed underestimated the average teacher salary in their local district by more than $10,000," according to the survey report.
"The average teacher salary in the local districts of surveyed parents was $51,700. But, on average, parents estimated that the average teacher in their district earned about $43,000 each year."
About 11% overestimated the average salaries by $10,000.
McKenzie highlighted that 86% of parent respondents said they think their children will go to college -- although less than half of high school graduates typically enroll in college and only about half of those complete their degree programs.
That disparity opens up the need for educators and policymakers to communicate to families about the value of career and technical education programs, she said.
Additionally, only 27% of respondents indicated they would like their college-going students to become teachers.
"I'm concerned we are shooting ourselves in the foot about teacher recruitment and retention," McKenzie said in response to the statistic.
She questioned whether the parent sentiment was tied to the perception of lower teacher salaries.
"I feel like we have been having all these conversations about how hard it is to be a teacher and how little teachers make. We aren't showing the positive sides, even so much as to what we are actually making, to the members of the community."
Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association that is the state's largest teacher union, reacted to the survey results on salaries, saying the results were not a surprise as evidenced by a shortage of teachers to fill open jobs in the state.
"Parents want a better life for their child and will do all they can so they have a great start in life," Fleming said.
"One aspect is having a salary that will support them and their family. This report supports the need to review educator pay in our state.
"Increasing educator salaries will enable districts to recruit and retain highly qualified and trained educators," Fleming continued.
The Office for Education Policy's "Parent Survey 2022" is available at: https://oep.uark.edu/what-are-parents-thinking/.