Americans polarized over role of schools in teaching racism and sexuality, Harris/NORC survey finds

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As several state and local governments consider bills banning the teaching of gender identity and race-related issues, the American public is divided on the role of public schools in teaching children these issues – with opinions polarized according to the parties.

According to a new study by University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs ResearchAbout a quarter of Americans say teachers at their local public school focus too much on racism and sexuality, while about a third think they focus too little on these issues.

The new study also reveals that 50% of Americans think parents don’t have enough influence on the school curriculum, while 51% think the same for teachers.

Democrats are more likely to say teachers have too little influence (62%) and Republicans are more likely to say parents have too little influence (65%). However, there are no significant differences in attitudes regarding the role of parents in the program between parents of children attending K-12 schools and the rest of the public.

“Some school policies have clearly been polarized along party lines, such as teaching racism or discussing sexuality,” said Adam Zelizer, assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. “However, the growing partisanship around school boards has not led to as large partisan divisions on other issues such as the banning of teaching books or the reliance on standardized tests to measure student achievement. Even on a salient and controversial topic like policing schools, the differences between Democrats and Republicans aren’t as big as one might expect.


There are stark differences between Democrats and Republicans in support for allowing transgender students to use restrooms that match their preferred gender identity (52% vs. 9%) or renaming schools after historical figures who supported slavery or segregation (52% vs. .14%).

However, the majority of both parties oppose policies that ban books on divisive topics or prevent teachers from teaching about sex and sexuality. A third of Republicans oppose teaching about sex and sexuality, compared to 20% of independents and 12% of Democrats. While 42% of Republicans say schools focus too much on sex and sexuality, 44% of Democrats think schools do too little.

While many Democrats and Republicans are unhappy with policies surrounding teaching about race and sexuality in schools, less than half of Americans have followed their local school board’s news or voted in board elections. school in the past five years.

“Few Americans say they pay close attention to their local school boards, but that could change if school policies continue to garner national attention,” said David Sterrett, senior fellow at the AP-NORC Center. “Public opinion around school policies and programs could also change in the coming year if these become bigger political issues in the midterm elections.”

Among the other key findings of the report:

  • Republicans are more likely than independents and Democrats to think schools focus too much on racism in the United States (47% vs. 30% vs. 9%) and discuss too many issues related to sex and sexuality (42 % versus 25% versus 8%).
  • 58% of Americans oppose policies that ban the teaching of books on controversial topics in schools, and 53% oppose policies that ban teachers from teaching about sex and sexuality in schools.
  • Parents of children attending K-12 schools are less likely than the rest of the public to favor vaccine (33% vs. 46%) and mask mandates (29% vs. 39%) for students attending schools in person .
  • Over the past five years, few have engaged with their local school board beyond following the news or voting in school board elections, with only 12% of Americans saying they have attended a board meeting. local school board and 15% reporting having contacted a school board. member.

This study was conducted by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, with funding from the University of Chicago NORC. Staff from Harris Public Policy and the AP-NORC Center collaborated on all aspects of the study.

Interviews for this survey were conducted March 17-21, 2022, with adults ages 18 and older representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Panel members were randomly selected from AmeriSpeak, and 1,030 completed the survey. The interviews were conducted in English. The overall margin of sampling error is +/- 4.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, including the design effect. The margin of sampling error for parents of children attending K-12 schools is +/- 8.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The margin of sampling error may be higher for other subgroups.

—This story is adapted from a press release first published by the Harris School of Public Policy.

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