The education culture war is raging. But for most parents, it’s background noise

Anya Kamenetz | April 29, 2022
LA Johnson | NPR

Math textbooks axed for their treatment of race; a viral Twitter account directing ire at LGBTQ teachers; a state law forbidding classroom discussion of sexual identity in younger grades; a board book for babies targeted as “pornographic.” Lately it seems there’s a new controversy erupting every day over how race, gender or history are tackled in public school classrooms.

But for most parents, these concerns seem to be far from top of mind. That’s according to a new national poll by NPR and Ipsos. By wide margins – and regardless of their political affiliation – parents express satisfaction with their children’s schools and what is being taught in them.

The nationally representative poll of 1,007 parents of school-aged children follows up on a similar survey NPR and Ipsos conducted about a year ago. In both polls, parents answered questions about the impact of the pandemic on their children, academically and socially, and about their schools’ performance during this time.

This year’s responses showed positive trends as the nation continues to recover from the worst of the pandemic. Compared to 2021, a growing margin of parents say their child is “ahead” when it comes to math, reading, social skills, and mental health and well-being. Fewer parents say their child is “behind” in those areas. In fact, in 2022, almost half of parents, 47%, agree with the statement: “the pandemic has not disrupted my child’s education.” That’s up from 38% in 2021, and is a view at odds with that of most education researchers, who see big disruptions in indicators like test scores, college attendance, and preschool enrollment.

Education is a concern, but most parents say their own kids’ school is doing well

For decades, voters have expressed concern in polls about the state of K-12 education in the U.S. But when you zoom in closer, parents seem to like their own kids’ school, and they like their kids’ teachers even more.

That’s true in the NPR/Ipsos poll as well. Parents named education as their top concern after inflation and crime/gun violence.

However, 88% of respondents agree “my child’s teacher(s) have done the best they could, given the circumstances around the pandemic.” And 82% agree “my child’s school has handled the pandemic well.”

Parents feel well-informed about curricula, even when there’s controversy

That satisfaction extends to hot-button topics. In the poll, 76% of respondents agree that “my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics.”

“It really is a pretty vocal minority that is hyper-focused on parental rights and decisions around curriculum,” observes Mallory Newall of Ipsos, which conducted the poll.

Just 18% of parents say their child’s school taught about gender and sexuality in a way that clashed with their family’s values; just 19% say the same about race and racism; and just 14% feel that way about U.S. history.

Christine, a mother in Wisconsin who participated in the poll, is a member of that vocal minority. She asked not to use her last name because she says she’s afraid of her child being retaliated against.

Christine, who is white, says her son’s teacher has made “snarky comments about white privilege. ” She also doesn’t approve of her son, who is in high school, being asked what pronouns he prefers to use. Switching to a different school or district would be tough for their family, so, Christine says, “hopefully we can do enough countereducation at home to have it not be detrimental to [his] growth and development.”

There is a striking lack of partisan divides in the poll responses

As a pollster, Newall at Ipsos says big partisan divides are “all I see on every topic right now.” She was struck by the relative lack of them in this poll.

Christine is the type of discontented parent who’s most often reflected in the headlines: a cultural conservative. Yet in our poll, the minority of parents who were unhappy with how their school tackled racism and U.S. history were just as likely to identify as Democrats as Republicans. In other words: For every parent who thinks their child’s school is too “woke,” there may be one who thinks it isn’t woke enough.

Jim Ondelacy is a Native American and a Democrat living in North Richland Hills, Texas, outside Fort Worth. He wishes his son’s high school went more in depth and taught more about the nation’s history of racism and oppression.

“It’s more of a water-down effect … [the teachers] kind of whitewash the way that history is taught to their kids,” he says.

He wants the school to teach about the French and Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and about slavery during the Revolutionary War.

“They understand what’s happening with Black Lives Matter … but they don’t really understand where it came from and how it started,” he says.

The most partisan issue in our poll was gender and sexuality, but still only a minority expressed any concerns. Republicans are closely divided: 26% say schools are not teaching about gender and sexuality in a way that matches their family’s values, while 22% say schools are (the remainder don’t know or say schools aren’t addressing those topics).

Among Democrats, a third agree with their school’s approach to gender and sexuality, while only 11% disagree.

Taryn Chatel, in Belmont, Mich., is the mother of a kindergartner, and has a family friend who is transgender. She’s hoping the school will introduce the idea of gender diversity, so it’s not all on her as a parent. “I really hope the district can get behind a way of implementing this,” she says.

The silent majority of parents is unconcerned

Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia have helped make parents’ rights into a major political talking point, and Republican-aligned groups like No Left Turn In Education and Parents Defending Education have continuously pushed these issues into the spotlight.

Ralph Wilson, a researcher who studies how partisan donors back the culture war, says these groups imply that they represent a silent majority of conservative-leaning parents. But that’s not necessarily the case, he says.

“It’s definitely an incredibly small minority that’s being amplified with this large, well-funded infrastructure to appear larger and to appear to have more well-founded concerns than they do.”

In fact, in our poll, about a third of parents say they “don’t know” how their child’s school addresses sexuality, gender identity, racism or patriotism. That’s far more than the percentage who express any problem – in some cases, twice as many.

Carmen Shipley, in Grand Junction, Colo., says she “picks her battles” when it comes to her daughter’s high school.

“I know there’s been some controversy … but I don’t honestly pay much attention to that, as much as some others here.”

She and her neighbors tend toward the conservative, and the local school board does as well, so she feels like everyone’s on the same page. “I have no issues with any of her teachers … I’m fairly comfortable with all of that.”

Besides, she says, her top priority isn’t the culture wars; it’s making sure her daughter stays engaged with her studies and is prepared for college.

Taylor Jennings-Brown contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many politicians are using schools to drive the culture wars. Now, a survey says the headlines about race and gender do not match most parents’ concerns. Even the criticism of schools in the pandemic does not match most parents’ experience. This is a national poll from NPR and Ipsos. And in it, by wide margins, parents seem happy with their children’s local schools and what is being taught there. Anya Kamenetz from NPR’s education desk is here to talk us through this. Good morning.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Always glad when you’re here. So this a follow-up poll to a survey you did a year ago more in the heart of the pandemic. What’s changed?

KAMENETZ: That’s right. And we found some real bright spots as the nation continues to come back from the worst of COVID. And as you alluded to, there’s also a few curveballs here. So starting with the good news – compared to 2021, more parents say their child is ahead, and fewer say their child’s behind. And that’s true whether we ask about math, reading or social skills, mental health development. In fact, now, Steve, almost half of parents agree with the statement, the pandemic has not disrupted my child’s education at all.

INSKEEP: Wow – which is a huge change from the anxiety that many of us felt a year or two ago. But is that feeling that nothing has gone wrong here correct?

KAMENETZ: You know, as an education reporter, I have to say this rosy view is a bit at odds with what researchers say about things like test scores, attendance. Children still do have quite a bit of learning to catch up with. Still, this is in line with a lot of polling going back decades that shows that, you know, parents are concerned about education as a national issue, but when you zoom in closer, they’re happy with their own kid’s school and, even more, so their kid’s teachers. In our poll, 88% said, my kid’s teachers did the best they could during the pandemic given the circumstances. More than 4 out of 5 said, my kid’s school has actually handled the pandemic pretty well.

INSKEEP: Wow. A lot of the anxiety and debates of the past year maybe fade a little bit, but how did you get at this especially sensitive question of the way that parents really feel about debates over race and history and gender and sexuality?

KAMENETZ: Well, we crafted several different questions about it with the folks at Ipsos. And we found some big differences between the headlines that you might read and what the average parent may be thinking. It’s a complex picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin is pushing to ban critical race theory from public education, even though CRT is not taught in K-12 education in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “CNN NEWSROOM”)

ALISYN CAMEROTA: A Florida House committee passed a bill last week that would ban discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.

KAMENETZ: Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Glenn Youngkin in Virginia have made parents’ rights into a major political talking point. The implication is that there’s a vast silent majority out there of conservative parents who want more oversight and control over their children’s schools. But NPR’s poll found more than three-quarters of respondents agreed that, my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics. And when you go issue by issue, fewer than one-fifth said that their child’s school taught about race, gender, U.S. or world history or patriotism in a way that did not match their family’s values. Mallory Newall at Ipsos helped conduct the poll with NPR.

MALLORY NEWALL: My read here on these so-called educational culture wars is we are really seeing a minority but a vocal one that’s kind of leading and centering themselves in this dialogue.

KAMENETZ: Christine (ph), a white mother in Wisconsin who participated in our poll, is the type of discontented parent who’s most often reflected in the national narrative, a cultural conservative. She asks us not to use her last name because she says she’s afraid of her children being retaliated against. She says she’s been unhappy with the general tone taken by some of her son’s teachers.

CHRISTINE: You know, there have been snarky comments about white privilege. And, you know, depending on your level of agreement with, you know, some of those critical race theory concepts, it’s just – it’s hard to explain that to your kids. It’s hard to have them not feel really slighted by that.

KAMENETZ: She also doesn’t approve of her son, who is in high school, being asked things like…

CHRISTINE: What pronouns do you prefer to use to refer to yourself?

KAMENETZ: She finds these kinds of concepts divisive and polarizing. Our poll suggests a minority of parents feel the same way as Christine. Eighteen percent overall were at odds with how the school is handling gender and sexuality, a figure that was higher among Republicans. But even they were closely divided on the topic. But here’s a twist. In our poll, the small group of parents who were unhappy with how their schools tackled racism in U.S. history were just as likely to identify as Democrats as Republicans. Mallory Newall of Ipsos says what struck her was that both Democrats and Republicans expressed high levels of satisfaction with their children’s schools.

NEWALL: I was kind of expecting to see some partisan differences here because, you know, in my job as a researcher, that’s really all I see on every topic right now. And that’s not really the case here.

KAMENETZ: So what is it that makes a small slice of conservative parents so vocal? To understand more, researcher Ralph Wilson says you need to follow the money. Wilson studies how Republican donors have been backing a culture war over public schools.

RALPH WILSON: It’s definitely an incredibly small minority that’s being amplified with this large, very well-funded infrastructure in order to appear larger and to appear to have more sort of well-founded concerns than they do.

KAMENETZ: What our poll suggests is that for every parent who thinks their child’s school is too, quote, unquote, “woke,” there may be another who thinks that isn’t woke enough.

JIM ONDELACY: They kind of whitewash the way that history is taught to their kids. They don’t really talk about the slave process that occurred during the Revolutionary War. They don’t talk about the land grab that they had during the Louisiana Purchase.

KAMENETZ: Jim Ondelacy is a father of four, a Native American and a Democrat living near Fort Worth, Texas. And he wishes his son’s high school went more in-depth and taught more about the nation’s history of racism and oppression.

ONDELACY: They understand what’s happening with Black Lives Matter. They have basic understanding, but they don’t really understand where it came from and how it started.

INSKEEP: One of the parents who’s dissatisfied and talked with Anya Kamenetz. Anya, what about the people who are more satisfied?

KAMENETZ: Right. So while we did hear from parents like Jim and Christine, overall, the big picture of the poll was that these so-called hot-button issues are not really that hot. In fact, you have to look at the nonrespondents. About a third of parents in NPR’s poll said they didn’t know whether their child’s school even addressed topics like sexuality, gender identity, racism or patriotism in a way that matched their values or didn’t. Carmen Shipley in Grand Junction, Colo., is one of those who thinks her children’s school has done a pretty good job all things considered.

CARMEN SHIPLEY: I don’t honestly pay as much attention to that as maybe some others here. I know there’s been some talk and controversies, but I tend to kind of pick and choose my battles.

KAMENETZ: So Shipley’s attitude is about twice as common as those who expressed a problem with how schools approach these issues. She and her community are pretty conservative, but her top priority is not the culture wars. It’s making sure her daughter stays engaged with her studies and is prepared for college.

INSKEEP: Anya Kamenetz with NPR’s education team. Always a pleasure. Thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks so much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR’S “JEALOUS HEART”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.