National Poll Shows Little Appetite for Book Bans, General Satisfaction With How Race and Gender Are Taught in Schools

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As schools get thrust into the center of the divisive culture wars, a new survey shows a larger share of Americans support an expansion of classroom discussion on racism and sexuality than those who believe such conversations should be curtailed.

A significant share of respondents report being happy with the status quo regarding these hot-button subjects: 37% of Americans believe schools focus “about the right amount” on racism and 40% said the same about sex and sexuality, according to the survey released last week by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

“I would think elected officials already know, but it might be useful to be reminded of the fact that their constituents’ political opinions may not be so easy to know and may not be so clear from what they’re seeing in the press or from who happens to show up at school board meetings,” said Adam Zelizer, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who helped write the survey.

Efforts to ban books about Black and LGBTQ people and limits on classroom instruction about racism and gender have become staples of conservative electoral politics. Despite a surge in book bans, the move is wildly unpopular — at least in theory. Among respondents, just 12%, including 18% of Republicans and 8% of Democrats, supported policies prohibiting books about divisive topics from being taught in schools. Yet Zelizer cautioned the finding could be misleading. 

“In the abstract, no one really supports banning a book from the library or preventing teachers from teaching,” he said. “It’s just when you get to specific examples that almost anyone can be convinced that some books are not appropriate.” 

Stark differences do exist across party lines on a range of contentious education issues. Slightly less than half of Republicans — 47% — said that schools focus too much on racism in the U.S., compared with just 9% of Democrats. Similarly, 42% of Republicans and 8% of Democrats said schools focus too much on issues around sex and sexuality. Slightly more than half of Democrats support policies that allow transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity compared to just 9% of Republicans. 

On another topic that has dominated school politics, the question of who should control what is taught in the classroom, half of respondents, including a plurality of both Republicans and Democrats, said that parents and educators had too little influence on classroom curriculum. Yet for GOP respondents, that meant parents lacked adequate influence while Democrats were more likely to say that teachers had too little voice in classroom curriculum decisions. 

Local and federal governments fared far worse. Nearly half of respondents — 45% — said that state governments maintain too much influence over curriculum and 43% said the same about federal entities. The largest share of respondents — 44% — said that local school board members maintain about the right amount of influence over curriculum decisions. A fifth of respondents said that school boards had too little power over curriculum and a third said they have too much. 

Overall, a minority of respondents support COVID-19 precautions in public schools. While 43% favor vaccine mandates, just over a third support mask mandates for students attending school in-person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poll identified partisan differences for COVID-related questions, but also found a discrepancy between parents and those without school-age children. In fact, parents were less likely to support COVID-19 mitigation measures than those without kids. A third of parents with children in K-12 schools support vaccine mandates compared to 46% of those who are not parents of school-age children. Similarly, just 29% of parents support mask mandates for students attending school in-person compared to 39% of those without kids in school. 

“Parents want their kids in schools and apparently they’re willing to put up with some spread of COVID,” Zelizer said. “Meanwhile nonparents, everyone else in the public, are maybe only concerned with the spread of COVID and don’t care quite as much about whether kids are in schools or being homeschooled because it doesn’t affect them.”

Scenes of irate people at school board meetings have played out across the country over the last year as they protested COVID-19 mitigation measures like mask mandates and so-called critical race theory, an academic framework about systemic racism in legal systems that has become a catch-all for classroom instruction about race. 

Yet few Americans are actively engaged with their local school boards, the poll found. Just 12% of Americans said they attended a local school board meeting in the last five years and 15% communicated directly with a school board member. Fewer than half — 43% — reported following news about their local school boards. 

In some places, school board members have faced significant public scrutiny and in some cases, threats of physical violence. In the poll, however, about two-thirds of Americans said they’re at least somewhat confident in their local school board. Zelizer noted that Republicans and Democrats held similar confidence levels on their local school boards. 

“It’s not like all of this activism and advocacy and policymaking activity has led to one of the parties being more angry at school boards than the other, at least in our sample among regular voters,” he said. “The scenes of rowdy attendees at school boards to the point of harassing school board members or experts who are working with school boards doesn’t seem to be indicative of the broader population.”

Despite all of the partisanship, Zelizer said he was most surprised that many issues remained far less polarized. For example, just 38% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans support standardized testing to measure student achievement. While 64% of Republicans support a full-time police presence in schools, nearly half — 49% — of Democrats agreed. 

The national survey was conducted in mid-March using telephones and the web to conduct interviews with 1,030 adults for the survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points. 

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