The new report concludes that school district leadership, especially in the suburbs, has become a bitter political battle for some education leaders, and divisions are hurting schools.
Political battles over critical race theory, LGBTQ rights, and COVID policy are disrupting K-12 education and increasing the time educators spend answering queries on public records looking for information about the so-called “culture war.” concerns, according to a survey of school district leaders released Thursday.
And this tension can put some educators at risk. About a third of district leaders who took part in last year’s survey said they have educators working in their school systems who have received verbal or written threats about acute issues since the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Fights seem to break out much more frequently in suburban school districts that cater to more white and wealthy students. The exception was school systems located in cities where local politics took a different direction from their states.
“These types of activities may be more common in wealthier districts because wealthier community members are more likely to use their voice and have a sense of effectiveness to call their school board members,” said Ashley Jochim, lead author of the study. Tackling Political Tensions in Schooling: Fall 2022 U.S. School District Cluster Survey Results, released Thursday.
“It’s just related to higher levels of activity and efficiency among the more resourced members of the community.”
But the city superintendent in the Democratic stronghold also told researchers that his neighborhood avoided backlash from the local population because “identity politics or culture war issues” did not inspire the community.
Last year, a nationwide representative group of school district and charter network leaders was polled as the nationwide debate on these topics dominated the electoral cycle and elevated public education as a major election issue in a way it hasn’t been in over a decade.
While there has always been political tension in K-12 — whether it’s the state’s overall standards or the expansion of a charter school — the current debate is taking on a different hue, Johim said.
“Firstly, the partisan nature of the debate has changed over time,” Johim said. “There have always been conflicts, in a sense, over schools, more in some contexts than others. But in the past few years, this conflict has become increasingly partisan or ideological in nature. And partly because of this, more and more state and national actors are involved in political conflicts taking place at the local level.”
According to Johim, government-level legislation and interest groups are also attracting increased attention and support.
Overall, 51 percent of district leaders who participated in the survey agreed or strongly agreed that controversy over critical race theory, issues related to the rights of lesbian, gay, transgender and gay students, and COVID-19 are affecting them. ability to teach students. .
Fifty-six percent of leaders in school systems catering to a majority of white students said political tensions on one of these issues interfere with learning, compared with 37 percent of leaders in systems with a majority of students of color.
And 45 percent of district leaders said they received more requests to open records than in previous years since the start of the 2021-22 school year.
And even though school districts have canceled most COVID mitigation strategies almost three years into the pandemic, it continues to be divisive, albeit less severe. Thirty-five percent of district leaders who participated in the survey said COVID polarization impacted education last fall, up from nearly three-quarters in the fall of 2021.
However, as controversy over COVID has abated, concerns over LGBTQ issues and critical race theory have begun to rise. By fall 2022, 46 percent of district leaders said political polarization around LGBTQ issues is affecting education. 41% of those surveyed said that concerns about critical race theory are affecting school education.
The report suggests that this timeline coincided with actions in public houses around the country related to these issues.
Verbal and written threats against educators were higher in suburban areas, where 43 percent of district leaders said teachers had been threatened. They were also more common in wealthier neighborhoods, where 41% of neighborhood leaders reported that their faculty had received threats on these divisive topics.
Threats were also more likely in districts with white students than in those with students of color in the majority: 35 percent versus 17 percent.
About 25 percent of district leaders in conservative or red states said they had received threats about a divisive topic, less than in more liberal or blue states and more politically mixed or purple states.
Suburban areas were also more likely to receive requests to remove books from the library or curriculum and to remove students from classes. According to the report, they were also more likely to receive formal complaints related to the way they taught or conducted training on controversial topics.
Some district leaders have said they are also making adjustments to ease tensions.
While the majority said they didn’t make changes to the instructions in response to stress, 32 percent said they changed, paused, or made changes to one or more subject areas. The most frequently covered topics were social-emotional learning, health and sex education, and mental health services. And some of the changes were minor – like changing the terms used by counties.
According to the report, the social sciences, US history, and civic education—although they are the subject of intense national debate—are less likely to be changed or modified.
Forty-six percent of county leaders said they had taken steps they believed had resolved the tensions. Some have created new procedures for teachers to follow for parents who wish to remove their child from the classroom. Others told the researchers that they held one-on-one meetings with parents to combat misinformation and quell disagreements.
“Unfortunately, this is not surprising,” said Susan Enfield, director of schools in Washoe County in Reno, Nevada, who was principal of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington at the start of the pandemic. “I wish we could just start standing up and saying, ‘No, that’s not okay. This is not good.”
Enfield said it’s getting tiresome for district leaders, but the tension could also affect the quality of children’s education in the long run. (Enfield is chairman of the Board of Trustees of Education Week.)
“It’s absolutely tedious – the job is quite hard if you don’t take on the extra burden of figuring out what you can and can’t say,” Enfield said. “I think at some point the question arises: are we moving away from actual learning, especially with regard to historical and social issues? Are things not being diluted to the point that students are not really exposed to history, historical issues, and current issues that we all have to contend with?”
Rico Mann, former director of Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, Colorado, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings, although they do not reflect his personal experience. In December, he stepped down as superintendent.
But he said he knew colleagues who had been doxed, whose homes had been picketed and threatened. Some also had to fight with their school boards. Others have left their jobs, he said.
But Mann also said that not all differences can be explained by clear liberal and conservative differences. In some cases, this is a real question of trust.
As superintendent at Aurora, he disagreed with the school board and the teachers’ union on when and how to return to face-to-face teaching. He emphasized that this is not about politics, but about people’s own understanding of what is safe to do.
“People didn’t feel like they knew who to trust and who to listen to,” he said. “It made people turn to different sources to get an idea of the truth. It caused a lot of fear and division.”
But debate and disagreement “complicate things.”
“It takes educators away from their core job of caring for and teaching students,” he said.
One way county leaders can counter political tensions is by focusing on building good relationships with their communities.
“The key is that you have to be in constant and close contact with your community,” Mann said, “because if your community doesn’t know who you are and basically trusts you, then you won’t be able to navigate these challenges.”
The report recommends, among other things, that more research be done to understand whether some of the strategies that district leaders have used are effective in protecting educators and other frontline staff from the effects of political tensions, educating school board members to mitigate the impact failures. this may be due to school board members focusing on a single issue and training district leaders – both in training programs and professional development – to help them deal with political issues.
The report by the Center for Rethinking Public Education, the RAND Education Group of American School Districts, and Arizona State University is based on surveys of 300 districts and heads of charter management organizations conducted between October and December last year. It also used 22 interviews with seven superintendents between January 2021 and November last year.