Young Republicans, Old Democrats: Exclusive Poll Points to Stark Generation Gaps on School Choice, Teachers’ Unions

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After years of conflict over COVID mitigation, controversial classroom subjects, and inclusion of trans athletes, education politics have seldom seemed more polarized between competing ideological extremes than they do in 2022. 

But according to public opinion data released Monday, Democrats and Republicans are actually internally divided by significant generation gaps in their attitudes toward certain aspects of education. Younger Democrats are much more likely to favor school choice than their older counterparts, pollsters found, while Millennial and Generation Z Republicans look more favorably on teachers’ unions than Baby Boomers.

The polling was administered in March by the research group SocialSphere on behalf of Murmuration, a reform-oriented nonprofit. Roughly seven months ahead of a midterm election cycle that could shake up control of Congress and state governments, its findings strongly suggest that voters of all backgrounds see public education as a crucial issue after two years of COVID-related tumult. 

SocialSphere founder John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy Institute of Politics and a former advisor to the Biden presidential campaign, said that he and his colleagues had detected significant, generational cleavages within the parties across a host of focus groups conducted with respondents from around the country.

“The new generations of voters, who have already played a significant role in the 2018 and 2020 elections, leave their partisanship at home when they go to vote and engage with schools,” Della Volpe said. “The old framework that has governed education politics really is not relevant in 2022.”

With a sample of nearly 7,000 registered voters, the research combines and weights a single national poll with additional surveys in nine states and Washington, D.C. Several — California, Texas, Tennessee, Colorado, and Georgia — are holding gubernatorial elections this fall, while the nation’s capital will choose its mayor. 

Most recent survey evidence shows President Biden’s party facing tough odds in November, with discontentment around the economy and foreign affairs driving voters toward a typical midterm flip; those trends were crystallized in last year’s surprising breakthrough by Republican Glenn Youngkin, who won the Virginia governor’s race after focusing intensely on pandemic school closures and the backlash against equity politics in schools. 

But when asked which party’s education values aligned most closely with their own, just 34 percent of SocialSphere respondents chose the GOP, compared with 44 percent who sided with Democrats. Another 22 percent said they were unsure. In state-level polls, Democrats were favored on education among voters in California (where they led on the issue by a 19-point margin), Colorado (17 points), Georgia (seven points), New Jersey (26 points), Texas (10 points), and Washington, D.C. (66 points); Republicans held an advantage in Louisiana and Missouri (both by five-point margins), while responses were within the margin of error in both Indiana and Tennessee.

Perhaps more notable than the clash between the parties are the fissures within each. The controversy over critical race theory in K-12 classrooms has acted as the main dividing line between left and right during the Biden era, with outraged parents in multiple states launching dozens of recall efforts against school board members over the teaching of controversial topics like race, gender, and sexuality. Some political experts see the emergence of anti-CRT activist groups like Moms for Liberty as reflecting a populist wave that could both deliver Republican victories this fall and change curricula in classrooms going forward.

Surprisingly, the issue may split Republicans more on the basis of age than it unites them in ideology. Asked whether school districts should teach “all aspects of American history,” including the legacy of slavery and racism, 59 percent of Millennial and Gen Z Republicans said yes, while 28 percent favored banning such lessons. Among Republicans in the Baby Boom and Silent Generations, just 44 percent supported teaching about these subjects, while 46 percent said the practice should be banned if it made white students uncomfortable. The resulting gap between the party’s oldest and youngest voters stands at 33 percentage points. 

Those findings jibe with those of other national polls, which have generally shown widespread support for teaching about the persistence of racism throughout U.S. history. Some experts have cautioned, however, that responses to the issue can vary greatly depending on how questions are phrased.

Teachers’ unions, typically viewed with suspicion on the right, engendered similarly disparate responses. Millennial and Gen Z Republicans gave local unions a favorability rating of plus-15 percent (44 percent favorable versus 29 percent unfavorable), while members of Generation X rated them minus-10 (32 percent favorable versus 42 percent unfavorable.) But those over the age of 57, falling into the Baby Boom and Silent Generations, were much more hostile (25 percent favorable versus 55 percent unfavorable.) While political perceptions can change as young people come to be more aligned with the positions of their favored political party, Della Volpe argued that “nothing in this data” suggests that the views of younger Republican voters will come to resemble those of their parents and grandparents.

Age gaps were apparent on the left as well. The idea of school choice — defined for respondents by SocialSphere as “​​the freedom to choose the educational environment that serves [one’s] children best, regardless of financial ability or home address” — received support from 61 percent of the youngest Democratic voters, but just 38 percent of the oldest. Overall, Democrats above the age of 57 viewed school choice slightly unfavorably (38 percent support versus 44 percent opposition). By contrast, the national Democratic Party has spent much of the last decade distancing itself from alternatives to traditional public schools, which it largely embraced under Presidents Clinton and Obama. Democratic officials at the state and local levels have attempted to curb the growth of charter schools, while the party’s 2020 platform called for “measures to increase accountability” from the sector.

Della Volpe, who recently published a book about the political emergence of Generation Z, said that his past surveys of people in their 20s revealed a cohort that prizes choice and agency above all.

“We see a group that is less supportive of school choice, and they’re aging out of the electorate,” he said. “They’re being replaced by others who value choice, specifically when it comes to their children.”

Pandemic fallout

More broadly, the SocialSphere data indicates that voters across partisan, racial, and gender demographics count public education among the most important political issues of the day. Fifty-two percent of all respondents rated K-12 schools as “very important,” with majorities in all but three state-level surveys saying likewise. That represents a larger share than those rating immigration, climate change, and the protection of traditional values very important, though somewhat lower than inflation (73 percent), the economy (73 percent), health care (67 percent), crime (61 percent), and foreign policy (56 percent). 

Somewhat larger shares of African Americans and Hispanics characterized education as very important (60 percent and 58 percent, respectively) than whites (49 percent). But when asked whether Americans “need to do more as a nation” to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education, the margins among members of different racial groups were virtually identical. Some 60 percent of Republicans agreed with that sentiment, along with 72 percent of Democrats.

The poll’s results also indicate significant, though possibly divergent, support for changes to the U.S. education system. Fifty-three percent of voters, and 55 percent of parents of school-aged children, agreed that the post-COVID recovery was “the time to begin working on the big ideas and changes necessary to improve education,” while 38 percent of voters said they’d prefer to “get back to normal.” But while Democrats agreed on the need for new reforms by a 60-31 split, only a slight plurality of Republicans did (49-43). 

Emma Bloomberg, the founder of Murmuration, said in an interview that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were likely behind the public’s willingness to embrace new approaches. Dissatisfaction with schools’ performance, especially with regard to lengthy closures, may have convinced parents that extensive new measures would need to be taken to help their children catch up from two years of lost learning.

“I can’t think what else it could have been, other than this pandemic offering a window into those classrooms — there’s nothing like actually seeing how your kids are or aren’t learning — and then the bungled reopening by so many districts…has just left families feeling like the school system didn’t prioritize their children,” said Bloomberg.

Bloomberg said she was heartened to see bipartisan willingness to expend greater national resources in pursuit of a better K-12 system, adding that she hoped younger partisans would vote their beliefs in the coming months. The eldest daughter of one of America’s most prominent advocates for school choice, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she said that Millennials’ relative detachment from political orthodoxy could make them “more reasonable and attuned to the impacts of policies on communities” — if they actually made it to the ballot box.

“Young voters get a lot of hype, and it’s always ‘Will they or won’t they turn out?’ This moment really does feel like…an opportunity to engage younger generations. If they believe deeply in the importance of a high-functioning public education system, that gives me hope not only for this cycle, but certainly for the cycles ahead.”

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