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Huge divide between Democrats, Republicans over what children should learn in school

New research confirms that Republican and Democrat parents have sharply differing views on what schools teach and how much input they have on their child's education.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Researchers say parents of children in primary education are further apart than ever in what they believe children should learn at school, including about gender identity and slavery — based on whether they vote Democrat or Republican.

A new Pew Research Center survey of parents with children in K-12 schools reported that Republican and Democratic parents have widely different views on what their children should learn at school, and the influence they have with local school boards on what public K-12 schools are teaching.

The report comes as more than 60% of K-12 parents have told researchers that the first year of the pandemic had a negative effect on their children’s education. Pew Research Center released an analysis exploring how parents assess the pandemic’s impact on their children’s education and well-being, with the National Assessment of Educational Progress's findings that remote learning in the early stages of the pandemic negatively impacted educational advancement.

Experts say anxiety around these effects has helped worsen polarization between parents with different ideologies. Stephen Farnsworth, a political sciences and international affairs professor & director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at University of Mary Washington, pointed out how Republican campaigns have capitalized on these anxieties for political gain. He said they are also using some parents’ anger over “culture war” worries that their child may learn about LGBTQ issues or critical race theory in public schools — although K-12 schools do not teach CRT — to fuel bids for local and state offices. 

“There has been a very effective general movement to generate hostility aimed at education bureaucracies,” Farnsworth said.

Republican strategist John Feehery of EFB Advocacy said in an email that “Republican parents are losing faith in public schools and many of them are migrating their kids to Catholic or private schools.  

“School boards and teacher unions are not listening to the concerns of these parents and the results could be catastrophic for public education. I think there has been a long Covid hangover where the intransigence of the local school board has severed the trust that many parents had in the process.”

Pew’s survey of 3,251 U.S. parents with children in K-12 schools, conducted between September to October 2022, reflected this divide in public opinion by political party, despite overall satisfaction levels with local school districts.

Republican parents with children in K-12 schools are about twice as likely as Democratic parents to say parents don’t have enough influence, or 44% vs. 23%. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say school boards have too much influence, and differ over the amount of input they think they have over what their children are learning in school. 

Republican and Democratic parents are equally likely to say that teachers and administrators at their children’s schools have values similar to their own. About 40% of all parents said they are satisfied with the amount of input they have in what their children learn.

When it comes to issues like gender identity, parents split. About 31% say they would prefer their children learn that whether someone is a boy or a girl is determined by their sex assigned at birth, while 31% want children to learn that someone can identify as a different sex than they were assigned at birth. About 37% say their children shouldn’t learn this in school.

On the issue of slavery, 49% say they would prefer that their children learn that the legacy of slavery still affects the position of Black people in American society today. But 42% prefer that their children learn that slavery is part of American history but doesn’t affect the present position of Black people in American society.

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Another division was on whether public school teachers can lead students in prayer. About 63% of Democratic parents said public school teachers shouldn’t be allowed to lead students in any type of prayers, compared to 39% of Republican parents. Around 27% said leading students in Christian prayers should only be allowed if prayers from other religions are offered, but 19% said it should be allowed even if prayers from other religions are not offered. 

About eight in 10 parents with students in a private K-12 school said they are very satisfied with the quality of the education their child is receiving, compared with 55% with a child in a public school. About two-thirds of upper-income parents expressed high levels of satisfaction, compared to 58% of those with middle incomes and 52% of those with lower incomes.

One in five parents say their children’s school doesn’t spend enough time on core academic subjects like reading, math, science and social studies. Fathers were more likely than mothers to say this, as were Republican and Republican-leaning parents at 23% versus Democrat-identifying parents at 17%.  

About two-thirds of parents say it is extremely or very important to them that their children’s school teaches them social and emotional skills. Parents of elementary school students are more likely than parents of high school students to say it’s important to them that their children’s school teaches these skills. This view is more common among Democrats, at 74% versus 57% of Republican parents. 

The researchers noted that the difference between upper- and lower-income parents remains when assessing only those with a child in public school. They said the sample size for parents answering about private school children was too small within the study’s methodology to analyze separately. 

Pew researcher Juliana Horowitz said she was surprised to see the contrast between what parents of different political affiliations want to see taught, and what they actually think of schools’ performance.  

"There are these big party differences in what they want kids to learn and how much say they think they have, but at the same time these parents feel satisfied with the quality of education,” Horowitz said. 

Polarized educational beliefs

Experts who reviewed this study say the divide among parents of different political parties has never been this wide, due to the current political climate in America.

Robert Alexander, founding director at Ohio Northern University’s Institute for Civics and Public Policy, said via email, "The stark differences among parents that fall along party lines in what should be taught in schools is a testament to the fact that all politics are now national, rather than local. 

“The nationalization of our politics is a trend that aligns with the growing polarization in American politics more broadly speaking. Citizens are taking lots of cues from party leaders and political elites and adjusting their own thoughts accordingly.”

Johann Neem, a history professor at Western Washington University, said they think there is plenty of shared ground between Democrats and Republicans about American history and how it should be taught.

Neem shared from their essay “A Usable Past for a Post-American Nation” published in “Hedgehog Review.”

“Many on the left, including many educators and scholars, consider racism ‘weight-bearing,’ and thus constitutive of American history and society," Neem said. "There’s not much hope in their version of American history. In contrast, many Republican voters — and I think, honestly, most Americans — see racism as a deep and real failing, but not what defines us as a people.”

Farnsworth said the current political climate is different from past battles over ideological issues in schools, such as books in libraries, because the country is more polarized than ever. He blamed “siloed news consumption” with different people consuming different information sources and some on a diet of conservative TV and radio, telling them “that their way of life is under threat.” 

However, Farnsworth pointed out that Americans largely agree that schools are doing fairly well — given the amount of pressure they are under to feed and care for students’ well being to help them learn, with very little funding or pay.

“The loudest voices at school board meetings are not necessarily representative of where a lot of people are, regarding the quality of the schools in their community,” he added. 

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