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Education, vaccines, masks: BSU policy study sheds light on public opinion

Respiratory therapist Danny Wilson receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 on Dec. 14 at Madison Memorial Hospital in Rexburg, Idaho.  (JOHN ROARK/Idaho Post-Register)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Press

BOISE – Education remains a top policy priority among Idahoans, according to the results of Boise State University’s annual Public Policy Survey, released Thursday.

The majority of Idahoans surveyed also support a statewide mask mandate to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus; however, just a small majority said they would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Less than half of those surveyed said they believe Idaho is going in the right direction, a dip from last year, but a much better result than U.S. residents overall who were asked about the country’s direction.

The survey, the sixth annual conducted by BSU’s School of Public Service, polled 1,000 Idaho residents – representative of the state’s population, geographically and demographically – between Nov. 29 and Dec. 3.

In the annual study, education consistently appears at the top of the list of issues Idahoans want the Idaho Legislature to tackle, and this year was no different. This year, 72% of respondents rated education between eight and 10 on a 10-point scale of importance. A sizable majority of Democrats (81%) and Republicans (68%) rated the issue with high importance.

“It’s not a flashy headline, but it is really interesting to see this year-over-year, especially in a year like this year where we’ve had so many disruptions and so many things going on and so many crises, and we just continue to see Idahoans saying the same thing,” said Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor of political science and director of survey research for BSU’s School of Public Service.

Second on the list of legislative priorities was jobs and the economy (62%). Third was health care (59%). Fourth was coronavirus response (53%). And fifth was housing (49%).

The Idaho Legislature this year has introduced just a few education-related bills, all coming from the Senate. Lawmakers made their top priority the coronavirus, with about a dozen bills introduced, related mostly to local and state government’s ability to respond to such emergencies.

Lyons clarified that those who feel strongly about education may not be disappointed by minimal action on the issue by the Legislature. The survey didn’t ask specifically what could be done about improving education – some people who feel strongly on the issue might dislike the classes being taught, for example, rather than overtly political issues, such as funding.

“It’s probably a mixture of different goals embedded in that 72%,” Lyons said. “I do think we keep seeing these consistent perceptions that quality could be better.”

Gov. Brad Little has shied away from a issuing a statewide mask mandate, as other governors have done. The survey found that the majority of Idahoans support a statewide mask mandate.

But the survey also asked a separate question on the issue: Would you support a mandate, “where not wearing a mask could be punishable by a fine?” In response to that question, support dropped to 51% and opposition rose to 46%, representing an relatively even split. (The survey has a simple random sampling margin of error of plus or minus 3.1%).

On the issue of masks, there exists a stark partisan divide. Almost all Democrats (93%) supported it, while 39% of Republicans were in favor and 59% opposed.

“When the minority party is so unified around one perspective that’s how you can get these results, even when Republicans actually are slightly opposed,” Lyons said.

As the state rolls out COVID-19 vaccines, the BSU survey revealed a challenge ahead: A large percentage of Idahoans (38%) likely don’t want to be vaccinated. The poll was conducted about a week before vaccines were approved by the Federal Drug Administration, but after data on their effectiveness was released. Just 55% of respondents said they probably or definitely would get a vaccine, and 7% were unsure.

More than a quarter said they would definitely not get the vaccine, the top reason being concern over side effects.

“I think there’s a lot of conversations that need to happen around trying to persuade and educate people and provide information about the fact that it is a safe and effective vaccine,” Lyons said.

Overall, Idahoans’ positive feelings about where the state is headed dropped about 6% from last year’s survey. Forty-nine percent said the state is going in the right direction, the lowest result of the six years BSU has conducted the survey in its current form, and 37% said Idaho is on the right track. But, comparatively, “those are actually pretty strong numbers,” Lyons said. Similar nationwide polls conducted this month found between 54% and 66% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

“There’s a lot of states in the country right now where that ‘right direction/wrong track’ looks a heckuva lot worse than ours,” Lyons said.