Majority believes public schools on wrong track: poll

BY REID WILSON 

Nearly two in three voters, including broad majorities across racial, educational and economic lines, believe public schools in the United States are headed off on the wrong track, a new poll shows.

Just 24 percent of Americans said that when they think about what children are being taught in public school, they believe schools are headed in the right direction, according to the survey conducted for Grinnell College by the Des Moines-based polling firm Selzer & Co.

There is broad agreement across virtually every stratum of society. About two-thirds of men and nearly as many women believe schools are off on the wrong track; so do 64 percent of white voters and 63 percent who are non-white; 67 percent of those who live in homes with children under the age of 18 said the same.

“If you pay any attention to news and you paid any attention to the last election, you knew there was this murmur of what was happening in public schools. This says it’s approaching a roar,” Selzer said in an interview. “It puts together the zeitgeist that’s been in play for a few years.”

The largest gap is among partisans: 83 percent of Republicans, and 87 percent of those who voted for former President Donald Trump, said schools are headed in the wrong direction. Just 44 percent of Democrats — still a plurality — and 42 percent of voters who backed President Biden said the same.

But there is little consensus over what ought to be taught, or not, in public schools. Most Americans, regardless of party affiliation, say that it is essential for schools to teach American history; economics and budgeting; reading, math and writing; and useful job skills.

Large majorities in both parties — 63 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats — say it is essential for schools to instill respect for people of different races in students.

The largest partisan gaps surround sex education and the value of patriotism. A majority of Democrats, 55 percent, said teaching sex education was essential, compared with just 31 percent of Republicans. Conversely, 56 percent of Republicans said they believe instilling patriotism is an essential task for schools, compared with just 22 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters.

Americans are divided over whether they trust schools to teach about racism. Just 49 percent said they trust schools in their district to teach about racism, including 43 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats.

But 50 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Democrats do not trust schools to teach about racism; the share of non-white Americans who trust schools to get it right is lower, 48 percent, than the share of whites, 52 percent.

Selzer pointed to the contrast between the majority that approves of schools teaching respect for people of all races and the deeper schism over whether people trust schools to teach about racism itself as a telling divide.

“It isn’t a white supremacist thing, if I could be so bold,” Selzer said. “It is about teaching about racism. That word now has been weaponized. Race, no problem with race. Racism, that’s a call to arms.”

After years in which teachers held political sway and successfully campaigned for raises even in deep red states, the political conversation around public education has changed in the recent past.

Republicans have campaigned on a promise to end teaching of critical race theory, a legal prism through which to view questions of law and society. Though critical race theory is not taught outside of a few specialized law school classes, some Republican strategists say it has served as a clarion call for parents who are fed up with schools on other issues, like sex education and the way those schools handled the coronavirus pandemic.

“What fights about critical race theory, Covid and sex ed have exposed is that the ‘experts’ sincerely think they know better than parents,” said Jordan Gehrke, a Republican strategist.

Gehrke pointed to Virginia’s gubernatorial election in 2021, when Republican Glenn Youngkin campaigned against critical race theory and Loudoun County school board meetings became a live-streamed event on Fox News. Youngkin lost Loudoun County by 16 points, compared with Trump, who lost it by 40 points. Youngkin is governor today.

Several states this year have advanced bills explicitly prohibiting so-called “divisive topics” on race in schools, in some cases to the extent that those measures would bar teaching about events in history like the Holocaust and slavery in America.

The poll did not ask about critical race theory.

But it did survey voters about President Biden, and attitudes toward his presidency. Just 34 percent of voters said they approved of Biden’s job performance, down 3 percentage points since March, while 52 percent said they disapprove.

A bare plurality, 47 percent to 44 percent, approve of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while a huge majority — 57 percent — said they disapproved of the way he has handled the economy. Only 31 percent said they approve of the job Biden has done guiding the economy.

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Americans are in a pessimistic mood, too: Just 27 percent believe the economy will get better over the next year, compared with 58 percent who said it will get worse.

The Grinnell College National Poll surveyed 1,002 adults over the age of 18 between March 15-20. It carried an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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