Americans are deeply divided on how much information children in K-12 schools should learn 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 shrinking — discussions of racism and sexuality, but about 4 in 10 say the current approach is about right, including similar percentages between the parties. However, the survey of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and Associated Press-NORC Public Affairs Research Center 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.
Meanwhile, a series of new state laws have been introduced, intended to restrict teaching about racism and sexuality and to establish a “parents’ bill of rights” that program transparency champion and allow parents to file complaints against teachers.
The push for legislation arose from an increased focus on K-12 schools during the Covid-19 pandemicwhen angry parents invaded school board meetings to voice their opposition to school closures, mask mandates and other restrictive measures meant 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 began as parents’ concern about virtual learning and mask-wearing turned into something bigger, Republican pollster Robert Blizzard said, describing parents as thinking, “OK, now that the schools are open, what are these kids learning in school? “
The poll shows that 50% of Americans say parents have too little influence on the school curriculum, 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 my husband and I would be interested in teachers sharing with our kids.”
In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in March enacted a bill ban teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Opponents, including the White House, dubbed him 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 boost parent involvement in schools and ban critical race theory, an academic framework on systemic racism that has become a catch-all phrase for teaching race in United States history. His Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, said during a debate that parents should not tell schools what to teach.
Poll also shows Americans have mixed views on schools’ focus on racism in the US
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 that, 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 did not suit her, for example, that her 6-year-old had learned Christopher Colombus in a very 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”.