Political rancor has had a chilling effect on public education, poll finds

By Diana Lambert, EdSource

Anti-civilian speech and hostile political rhetoric have seeped into the nation’s classrooms, leading to declining support for teaching about race and racism, and a sharp increase in bullying of LGBTQ youth, a survey finds of high school principals released this week.

Nearly half of the 682 high school principals surveyed said the political divide has deepened since the Covid-19 pandemic began in early 2020.

More than two-thirds reported substantial conflict in their schools over issues such as the teaching of race and racism, LGBTQ+ rights and the use of social-emotional learning strategies in the classroom, according to “Educating for a Diverse Democracy”, by the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, and the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside.

“The amount of political conflict in California is remarkably similar to that in the US as a whole,” said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and one of the study’s authors. “…There is a high level of conflict around teaching and learning about race and racism, LGBTQ+ student rights, and book bans.”

California stands out in the study on political virulence among students. Students residing in areas of the state with similar numbers of conservative and liberal residents are twice as likely to be hostile to students with different political views than students in similar communities in other states.

But California conservatives appear to be a little less concerned about social emotional learning than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Social-emotional learning has been used in schools for decades, but has received additional funding and attention since the pandemic began. It involves teaching students about self and social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

School closures due to covid generated controversy

Anti-civic discourse and political partisanship began to boil after the Covid school closures. Parents and other activists showed up at school board meetings to demand that schools reopen. After schools reopened, many returned to protest mask mandates, vaccination mandates and other security requirements. Once the covid-19 protocols were loosened, conservative activists devoted their energy to fighting educational policies on gender identity and racial equity.

“My high school (faced) the whole conspiracy theory that Covid wasn’t real, you don’t need to wear face masks, people are sheep, we’re all fooled by the federal government,” said a California principal. “I had very, very stressful parent meetings. One of the parents concerned me personally with this vitriol and his anger, and he called me a ‘liberal communist asshole.’”

The researchers interviewed the principals of the blue, red and purple constituencies during the summer of 2022 to determine how the partisan divide has affected schools. Of those directors, 150 were from California. The names of the directors were not included in the report.

The researchers labeled districts blue if fewer than 45% of voters voted for Donald Trump for president in 2020, purple if between 45% and 54.9% voted for Trump, and red if more than 55% of voters voters chose Trump.

“Many of the directors were extraordinarily considerate of these issues and were doing everything they could under the circumstances,” Rogers said. “They were hearing very ferocious attacks, being called liberal Marxists or being physically threatened. A California director felt physically threatened in the meetings.”

Some principals reported that parents of different political positions challenged them, but most of the conflict incidents were sparked by conservative activists, Rogers said.

“There is a very vocal and politically organized group of parents/stakeholders with ultra-conservative views who want to remove discussions of race from the high school classroom, believe LGBTQ+ rights should not be upheld in the school system, want have Christian prayer in schools, I want books related to race and LGBTQ+ issues removed from the curriculum and the library,” a Nebraska principal told investigators.

Hostility towards LGBTQ+ students on the rise

There has been an increase in hate speech directed at LGBTQ+ students since 2018, principals reported. Demeaning and hostile comments toward LGBTQ+ students have increased 2% in blue, 9% red and purple constituencies since 2018, according to the survey.

“Our wonderful school counselors also accepted parental abuse,” said a California principal. A counselor described to the principal how a parent had yelled at him on the phone and used a derogatory word for gay people. “It’s pretty daunting to work so hard and take care of all of our students when so many people are being hateful and threatening,” she said.

Principals in politically divided or purple communities across the country were twice as likely to report multiple instances of conflict in their schools related to LGBTQ+ issues and 50% more likely to report multiple instances of conflict related to teaching and learning about race and racism. school library books and social-emotional learning than schools in primarily conservative or liberal areas.

Schools avoid lessons considered controversial

The conflict is changing the way some students are taught. Some teachers were told to avoid hot topics like race and LGBTQ+ issues. Other teachers watered down their lessons in an effort to reduce rhetoric among students and avoid parental anger, according to the study.

At least one California principal has told his teachers to avoid talking about politics, elections and current events.

“Unfortunately, my parents can’t handle it, so I told them it’s not appropriate for them to teach these subjects in class,” she said. “This is not me or my management team being afraid of conflict. We are taking a pragmatic approach so that our school can function with as little disruption as possible and hopefully without violence.”

Sometimes educators, rather than leaning into controversial issues around race and LGBTQ rights, have become more hesitant, Rogers said.

“School and district leaders have not provided the professional development to help teachers do this job well,” he said. “It’s hard work engaging in discussions about race, and teachers need help and support to do it.”

Charlie Hoffman saw some of this hesitation when he was superintendent of Bella Vista Elementary School in Shasta, one of California’s two red constituencies. Teachers who had taken similar professional development in the past refused last year because the professional development course title included the word equity.

“Some teachers were suddenly looking to take offense at something in the training because of the word fairness,” he said. “None of that was new to what we’ve been doing. What was new was the political rhetoric that turned the word equity into a loaded term.”

Overall, California continues to provide professional development around teaching and learning about the history of diverse ethnic groups in red and purple communities, Rogers said. He hopes that’s because of the state mandate to teach ethnic studies beginning in the 2025-26 school year.

“They have a professional and legal obligation to prepare their schools to meet that state mandate,” Rogers said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have conflicts and battles ahead as schools prepare to implement these programs.”

Schools struggle to teach students media literacy

The strong emotions that come with the high level of political partisanship experienced in the United States are making it difficult for schools to help students distinguish fact from fiction. It becomes even more challenging when there is no agreement on what constitutes legitimate information.

Nearly two-thirds of the principals surveyed said that parents or community members have questioned the information or media sources used by teachers in their classrooms. This is most problematic in purple districts where more than a third of principals reported that it happened three or more times.

“There is so much information available to everyone that it has made it difficult for parents and students to decide what is real and what is fake,” said a Michigan principal.

Schools in the purple areas have the highest amount of political conflict

Conflicts have been more frequent in the purple areas because of their ideological diversity, but there has also been a concerted effort to target schools in those areas for political reasons, Rogers said. According to the report, a disproportionate number of districts in politically contested areas have had conflicts over teaching about race or racial inequality.

California Republican Party Parent Revolt and other conservative organizations tapped into the anger parents were feeling over school closures and Covid protocols to recruit and train them to run for school boards. They planned to get conservative candidates at tables to fight educational policies on gender identity and racial equity and to promote other conservative issues. the the red wave did not happen, but Republican leaders say the effort will continue.

“I think California seems to be in a space where the Republican Party can activate and energize a base, and to the extent that is true, one would expect continued activity in this area at great cost to public education and the democracy”. Rogers said.

Some politicians have decided that it is a strategic advantage to push the conflict against public schools, he said.

“It is important going forward that parents, students and educators talk about their commitment to a diverse democracy and let the community know that we stand up for LGBTQ+ students and teach the whole story,” Rogers said. “Unless we have broad public commitment to these goals, a small number of angry voices will dominate the conversation.”

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