Hannah Fingerhut and Annie Ma, Associated Press, April 14, 2022
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. Still, the poll from the University of Chicago 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 teachers in local public schools discuss issues related to sexuality too much, while only about 1 in 10 say too little. Among Democrats, those numbers are reversed.
The findings reflect a sharply politicized national debate that has consumed local school boards and, increasingly, state capitols. Republicans see the fight over school curriculum as a winning culture war issue that will motivate their voters in the midterm elections.
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 push for legislation grew out of an elevated focus on K-12 schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, when angry parents crowded school board meetings to voice opposition to school closures, mask mandates and other restrictive measures intended to prevent the spread of illness.
“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. About half also say teachers have too little influence.
Blizzard, who has been working with a group called N2 America to help GOP candidates in suburbs, said the schools issue resonates with the Republican base and can motivate voters.
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.