Where Americans Are — and Aren’t — Politically Divided on Education

There are plenty of heated debates happening about what should be taught in schools: whether it’s over the type of books students should read, how LGBTQ topics are discussed or how to talk about racism.

There are a few problems with those debates, says Morgan Polikoff, one of which is that they’re not particularly informed by evidence about what people want for public education.

Polikoff and his fellow researchers at the University of California, where he’s a professor of education, set out to find what Americans think about topics that have been roiled in controversy over the past several years. The resulting study finds that while there are some obvious partisan divides, there are some surprising areas where most adults agree.

“I think that there is a broad and sensible middle-of-the-country who is interested in common sense, popular education policy opinions, [and] that is sometimes not well-represented by two extremes,” Polikoff says. “One hope is that rather than balkanizing into red state and blue state education policy agendas, that we can have sensible, civic-minded reforms that large majorities of people can support.”

The study is based on survey responses from 3,905 U.S. adults, with about half of those coming from people who said there was at least one school-age child in their home. Their political affiliations were 40 percent Democrat, 34 percent Republican and 27 percent “other.”

Polikoff has spent his career studying curriculum and gained an interest over time in the role politics play in shaping it.

“A lot of time people who study policy think, ‘If we could craft the perfect policy, we improve student learning,’” he says, “but politics play a huge role in policy — right now it’s primarily these hot button topics. We the research team really felt like there was an opportunity to provide much needed evidence about what people were actually thinking about these topics.”

What’s the Point?

Researchers started by asking participants about the fundamental purposes of public education, and they found some common values right off the bat.

Adults from all political affiliations largely agreed that teaching reading, writing and math were “very important,” according to the survey results, with a majority saying a free education and learning about civics were likewise important.

The largest division was on whether “teaching children the importance of embracing differences” was important. While a majority of adults overall said it was important, a breakdown of the results show 74 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans agreed with the idea.

Public vs. Private Funding

Politicians have an increasing appetite for “school choice” laws in places like Georgia (where a voucher bill has been freshly stamped) and Texas (where the governor called four special sessions last year in hopes of saving doomed voucher legislation).

But when it comes to the average American? Researchers found that adults generally support public funding staying in public schools — even if a majority of respondents also think private school students learn more.

They asked participants to choose their preference between education funding going toward either sending low-income students to private schools or to improving public schools. Overall, 73 percent of participants said funds should go to public schools.

Even when broken down by political party and income, a majority of each group wanted the funds for public education.

Stark Division on LGBTQ+ Topics

Researchers asked participants to decide on the appropriateness of potentially controversial topics like the discussion of sex ed, racism and LGBTQ+ issues at both the elementary and high school levels.

LGBTQ+ issues garnered the most politically stratified responses, with Democrats largely in support and Republicans generally opposed to discussion of them in high school.

At the elementary level, adults overall were supportive of teaching topics like “why being kind to others matters” and the importance of standing up for other people. The political divide became more pronounced as the topics became more complex.

For example, 69 percent of Democrats said a book about “same-sex penguin adoption” — an obvious nod to “And Tango Makes Three” — would be appropriate for elementary school while only 24 percent of Republicans agreed.

Fewer adults from either party approved of lessons or discussions that directly mentioned gender or LGBTQ topics in elementary school. Only 28 percent of adults said “discussing right to use bathroom that matches gender identity” was appropriate for that age group, with a political party breakdown of 43 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans agreeing.

While there was more agreement with LGBTQ+ topic discussion in high schools, differences once again emerged among party lines when the survey asked about situations beyond general talk of being kind or standing up for others.

On the topic of “same-sex penguin adoption,” 79 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans said it was appropriate for high school.

An overall majority of participants said situations like the discussion of same-sex marriage rights, LGBTQ American history or a teacher having a photo of a same-sex partner on their desk were appropriate for high school — but answers differed by political party.

Talking About Racism

Concerns over the discussion of racism — more specifically, Critical Race Theory — in public schools reached a “mass hysteria” a couple years ago, researchers say. While that level of panic has slowed more recently, the study shows topics on racism still prompt a deep partisan divide.

Participants generally were in agreement that most discussions on racism were appropriate for older rather than younger students. Only a handful of scenarios dealing with racism got support from a majority of adults as appropriate for elementary students. The most consensus was for discussions of “equal treatment regardless of skin color” and colonial harm against Native Americans.

The discussion of “slavery as the main cause of Civil War” in elementary school was deemed appropriate by less than half — 42 percent — of adults overall. By political party, 55 percent of Democrats and 32 percent of Republicans said it would be appropriate. (A majority of all groups said it was appropriate for high school.)

The study found that Republicans differed with their desire “to protect children from feeling guilty about historical racism,” which wasn’t a concern among participants who were Democrats or part of a different political party.

Despite that, a majority of people from all political affiliations said that children should read books by authors from “racial minority groups because they provide different experiences and perspectives.” That may be surprising to anyone who has followed news about the surge in school book banning, which has targeted books about racism alongside those about sexuality and gender.

“I think our report does point to examples like that where, again, it’s not a black or white,” Polikoff says. “There’s a need to be really specific and get down to details about what people want and don’t want, and not to caricature the opposition on either side. Because I really do think that we can craft a curriculum, even in red states, that is responsive to the increasingly diverse student body that we have.”

Parental Control

The term “parental rights” has been increasingly showing up in debates over education. It’s been part of book ban movements and discussions over the gender students express at school.

Adults generally support parents speaking up when they disagree with a lesson or topics that come up in their own child’s class. Actions like talking to their child and the teacher about their disagreement, speaking about it at a school board meeting or opting out of the lesson received support from 71 percent or more of survey respondents. Unenrolling a child from school and organizing a protest were among the least popular responses.

But the participants were split on how a school should respond when a parent raises a concern: 34 percent said the lesson should go on as planned, 29 said the school should modify it, and the rest either didn’t know or had a different idea.

For those who did not agree that the lesson should proceed as planned, researchers asked respondents to go into more detail about what the next steps should be.

None of the responses got a majority of agreement, with 33 percent saying teachers or principals should make the final decision and 30 percent saying it should go to the school board. Ten percent or fewer said they didn’t know, that parents should vote on the lesson or that the school should eliminate the lesson.

Polikoff says the responses show many people haven’t thought that far ahead.

“When we ask what schools and districts should do when parents express disagreement,” he explains, “or what if multiple parents in the same school or classroom express different priorities, people don’t really have a good answer to that question. I think that we haven’t gotten past the sort of high-level, jingoistic parents’ rights language to actually think about, ‘What does that mean in practice?’”

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