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Parents worry children are falling behind but approve of Newsom’s handling of education, poll finds

Kindergarten children in masks sitting at desks raise their hands for a photo
A kindergarten class and L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner pose for a group photo as they meet for the first time in more than a year at Maurice Sendak Elementary in North Hollywood on April 13.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic closed school campuses statewide, vast majorities of California adults and public school parents believe their children have fallen behind academically — while still approving of government and school officials’ response to the pandemic, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California has found.

More than 8 in 10 respondents said children are falling behind academically during the pandemic. That share was consistent among those with and without children in public school and across racial and ethnic groups. About the same share said they were concerned that students in lower-income areas and English language learners were especially likely to fall behind.

Yet many of these same adults appear not to fault their local school district or Gov. Gavin Newsom. Almost two-thirds of public school parents said they approved of how Newsom is handling the state’s K-12 public education system, and almost three-quarters approved of how their local school district handled closures.

Similarly, majorities across demographic groups said they were satisfied with their ability to offer a productive learning environment at home and with the distance learning activities provided by their children’s schools — though few said they were “very” satisfied.

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“Having lived with the pandemic for a year, the public is very aware of what a complex issue this is — weighing public safety and health issues alongside education,” said PPIC President Mark Baldassare. “I guess it’s not surprising that there’d be results that seem like they’d be conflicting because probably on a day-to-day basis people are themselves conflicted.”

The poll surveyed a random, representative sample of 1,600 adults statewide and was conducted online during a two-week period at the beginning of April.

The poll’s findings echo those published this month by UCLA about L.A. County residents’ satisfaction with their quality of life. That survey found that education had slipped in the rankings, with more than three-quarters of parents expressing a belief that children had been “substantially hurt” academically or socially by being away from school and taking part in distance learning during the last year.

The results also come at a time of relative optimism in California, as the state has emerged from the darkest months of the pandemic, with the lowest case rate in the country. Many children have begun returning to in-person instruction — albeit with large variation by age and by geography. And L.A. County is set to enter the least restrictive tier of reopening restrictions as early as next week.

“There’s hope now that things are moving in the right direction,” Baldassare said.

The state is also in the midst of a historic effort to recall Newsom, in part over his handling of the pandemic.

All eyes are turning toward the fall. Six in 10 adults surveyed said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that K-12 schools would not fully reopen for in-person instruction this fall, with the share slightly higher (66%) among public school parents.

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In-person classes have begun at L.A. schools, starting with the youngest students, who will be followed over the coming days by other grades.

“That’s what’s on California’s mind when it comes to schools,” Baldassare said. “If we’re not fully reopened, I think you’re going to see changes in how people think about their schools and the governor.”

There also appears to be a strong desire among parents to have a benchmark or assessment of how much students learned during the last year. Among Californians and public school parents, 3 in 4 said schools should proceed with year-end tests to measure the pandemic’s impact on student progress and learning; just over half said they are confident in the accuracy of such tests as an indicator of students’ abilities.

“They desperately want to know what happened; it’s not like they don’t want any information,” Baldassare said. “But a lot of people are dubious about what it’s going to tell us.”

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Survey respondents also appeared split along partisan lines in their views on school quality and school funding, as they have in recent years. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to rate the quality of their public schools with an A or B grade, to say that state funding for public education was inadequate, to support state or local funding measures for schools, and to favor higher salaries to attract and retain teachers in lower-income areas.

Also as in previous years, the survey showed that support for early childhood education is high, especially among Democrats. More than 8 in 10 California parents said that attending preschool is important for children’s success in kindergarten through 12th grade and that the state should fund voluntary preschool programs for all 4-year-old children.


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