According to a new poll released as Republicans across the country aim to make parental involvement in education a central campaign issue this election year, Americans are deeply divided on how much information children K-12 schools should learn about racism and sexuality.
Overall, Americans lean slightly toward expanding — not shrinking — discussions of racism and sexuality, but about 4 in 10 say the current approach is about right, including similar percentages between the parties. Still, the poll from the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows stark differences between Republicans and Democrats who want to see schools make adjustments.
About 4 in 10 Republicans say local public school teachers discuss sex-related issues too much, while about 1 in 10 say too little. Among Democrats, these numbers are reversed.
The results reflect a highly politicized national debate that has consumed local school boards and, increasingly, state capitals. Republicans see the fight over the school curriculum as a winning culture war issue that will motivate their voters in the midterm elections.
In the meantime, a slew of new state laws have been introduced, intended to restrict teaching about racism and sexuality and establish a “parents’ bill of rights” that would uphold curriculum transparency and allow parents to sue teachers.
The push for legislation arose from an increased focus on K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, when angry parents flooded school board meetings to voice their opposition to the school closures, mask mandates and other restrictive measures intended to prevent the spread of the disease.
“Everything that’s happening these days kind of runs counter to the longer history of school boards as relatively unimportant government institutions, and in many cases, they’re nonpartisan offices.” , said Adam Zelizer, a professor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago. research school board legislation.
What sets this moment apart, Zelizer said, is the “popular anger” in response to school policies and the coordinated national effort to recruit partisan candidates for school boards and local offices.
What started as parents’ concern about virtual learning and wearing masks has morphed into something bigger, Republican pollster Robert Blizzard said, describing parents as thinking, “OK, now that the schools are open, what are these children learning at school?
The poll shows that 50% of Americans say parents have too little influence on the program, while 20% say they have too much and 27% say it’s about right. About half also say teachers have too little influence.
Kendra Schultz said she and her husband decided their one-year-old daughter would be homeschooled, at least initially, because of what friends told them about their experiences with schools in Columbia, Missouri. .
More recently, she says, a 4-year-old’s pre-K class talked about gender pronouns. Schultz offered this and masks the requirements as examples of how the public school system “does not align with what we believe in or how we would like to see our children educated.”
“I’m just like, you’re a little kid, you should learn your ABCs and your numbers and things like that,” said Schultz, a 30-year-old curator. “It’s just not something that me and my husband would want teachers to share with our children.”
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill in March banning sexual orientation and gender identity instruction in kindergarten through third grade. Opponents, including the White House, have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The poll shows Americans are slightly more likely to say the focus on sex and sexuality in local schools is too little rather than too much, 31% to 23%, but 40% say it’s a little close just. The survey did not ask about specific grade levels.
Blizzard, which has worked with a group called N2 America to help GOP candidates in the suburbs, said the schools issue resonates with the Republican base and can motivate voters.
In the race for governor of Virginia last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin won after campaigning to strengthen parental involvement in schools and ban critical race theory, an academic framework on systemic racism that has become a catch-all phrase for teaching about race in United States history. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, said in a debate that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach.
Poll also shows Americans have mixed views on schools’ focus on racism in the US
Charkia Lang-James, a mother of three who lives near Mobile, Alabama, said she believes schools should teach the truest and most comprehensive version of the story, especially on issues related to race and racism.
“The truth must be taught, whether good or bad,” she said. “All the truth.”
Lang-James, who is black and identifies as a political independent, said as an adult she learned that many things she was taught in school lacked depth and precision.
“We discovered Christopher Columbus and how he discovered America,” she said. “But how can he discover something that was already there? … I feel like that’s just not the whole story.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said parents and teachers are frustrated after the disruptions of the pandemic and should come together to help children recover. Efforts to predetermine the curriculum and restrict teaching stand in the way, she said.
“The people who are proposing them, they’ve been pretty clear…they just want to sow doubt and distrust because they want to end public education as we know it,” Weingarten said.
Parents of school-aged children are no more likely than other adults to say that parents have too little influence in schools. But there is a wide partisan divide, with 65% of Republicans saying so, compared to 38% of Democrats.
Michael Henry, a father of three in Dacula, Georgia, says he wondered what the right level of involvement was. It didn’t sit well with her, for example, that her 6-year-old learned of Columbus in an entirely positive light. He says he has reflected on “some of the lies” and “glorifications of history” in his own public school education and thinks there needs to be more talk about race.
But at the end of the day, the school curriculum is “outside my area of expertise,” said Henry, 31, an actuary who is also acting chairman of the Gwinnett County Young Democrats.
“I have to do a lot of study and work to be able to make informed decisions, and I don’t feel like parents usually have those kinds of skills” for the school curriculum, he says. “I think the pros should mostly figure out what the program should be.”
Henry fears the new restrictions will “add extra hassle for teachers, who already have a lot to do, to solve a problem that doesn’t exist”.
AP Education Writer Collin Binkley in Boston contributed to this report.
Ma, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15
The AP-NORC poll of 1,082 adults was conducted March 17-21 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4 percentage points.