(WASHINGTON) — Americans are deeply divided over how much children in K-12 schools should be taught about racism and sexuality, according to a new poll released as Republicans across the country aim to make parental involvement in education a central campaign theme this election year.
Overall, Americans lean slightly toward expanding — not cutting back — discussions of racism and sexuality, but roughly 4 in 10 say the current approach is about right, including similar percentages across party lines. The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and The Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research show stark differences in the views of Republicans and Democrats.
New UChicago Harris/APNORC poll shows half of Americans believe that both teachers and parents have little control over K-12 education. Only 4 out of 10 Democrats, but two thirds of Republicans agree with this assessment.
Nearly 4 out 10 Republicans believe teachers at local public schools talk too often about sexuality, but only 1 in 10 of them say it too often. These numbers are reversed among Democrats.
These findings are a reflection of a highly politicized national discussion that has consumed local schools boards and increasingly state capitals. Republicans consider the debate over school curriculum to be a win-win culture war issue which will inspire their supporters in the midterm election.
In the meantime, a flurry of new state laws has been introduced, meant to curtail teaching about racism and sexuality and to establish a “parents’ bill of rights” that would champion curriculum transparency and allow parents to file complaints against teachers.
The COVID-19 epidemic saw angry parents crowd school boards to protest school closings and mask mandates.
“All that that’s happening these days kind of goes against the longer history of school boards being relatively low salience government institutions and, in a lot of cases, they are nonpartisan offices,” said Adam Zelizer, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School researching school board legislation.
What distinguishes this moment, Zelizer said, is the “grassroots anger” in response to school policies and the national, coordinated effort to recruit partisan candidates for school boards and local offices.
What started as parents’ concern about virtual learning and mask wearing has morphed into something larger, said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, describing parents as thinking: “OK, now that we have the schools open, what are these kids learning in school?”
The poll shows 50% of Americans say parents have too little influence on curriculum, while 20% say they have too much and 27% say it’s about right. Half of respondents also believe teachers are too influential.
Kendra Schultz stated that she and her husband decided to homeschool their one-year old daughter based on what their friends had said about Columbian schools.
Most recently, she said, one 4-year-old’s pre-K class talked about gender pronouns. Schultz offered that and mask requirements as examples of how the public school system “doesn’t align with what we believe or how we would like to see our children educated.”
“I’m just like, you’re a little kid, you should be learning your ABCs and your numbers and things like that,” said Schultz, a 30-year-old conservative. “That’s just not something that me and my husband would be interested in having teachers share with our children.”
Florida’s Republican Governor. In March, Ron DeSantis signed into law in Florida a bill that prohibited instruction in sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to 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 about right. The poll didn’t ask about specific grade levels.
Blizzard has worked with N2 America, a group that helps GOP candidates in the suburbs. He said that the issue of schools resonates with Republican voters and motivates them.
In the Virginia governor’s race last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin won after campaigning on boosting parental involvement in schools and banning critical race theory, an academic framework about systemic racism that has become a catch-all phrase for teaching about race in U.S. history. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, had said in a debate that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach.
The poll also shows Americans have mixed views about schools’ focus on racism in the U.S.
Charkia Lang James is a mother to three children and lives near Mobile in Alabama.
“The truth should be taught, whether it looks good or bad,” she said. “All of the truth.”
Lang-James is Black, and she identifies herself as a political independence. She said that as an adult she realized how insufficient depth and accuracy many of the things she was taught in school.
“We learned about Christopher Columbus, and how he discovered America,” she said. “But how can he discover something that was already there? … I feel like it’s just not the whole history.”
Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) said teachers and parents are feeling frustrated following pandemic disruptions. Teachers should also work with parents to provide support for children. It is becoming difficult to determine curriculum and limit teaching, Weingarten 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-age children aren’t more likely than other adults to say parents have too little influence in schools. There is however a significant partisan gap with 65% (compared to 38% for Democrats) saying so.
Michael Henry, a father of three in Dacula, Georgia, says he’s wrestled over what the right level of involvement is. It didn’t sit right with him, for example, that his 6-year-old was taught about Columbus in an entirely positive light. He says he’s reflected on “some of the lies” and “glorifications of history” in his own public school education and thinks race needs to be talked about more.
But ultimately, school curriculum is “outside my area of expertise,” said Henry, 31, an actuary who is also the acting president of the Gwinnett County Young Democrats.
“I have to do a lot of studying and work to be able to make informed decisions, and I don’t feel like parents generally have that kind of skill set” for curriculum, he said. “I think professionals should mostly be determining what the curriculum should be.”
Henry worries that new restrictions are “adding extra hassle for teachers, who already have a lot on their plate, to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”
AP Education Writer Collin BinkleyBoston contributed to the report.
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. All respondents were within a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
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