Navigating Political Tensions Over Schooling: Findings from the Fall 2022 American School District Panel Survey
Ashley Jochim, Melissa Kay Diliberti, Heather Schwartz, Katharine Destler, & Paul Hill; RAND Corporation & Center on Reinventing Public Education
Public schooling has always been politically fraught, but current disagreements over issues related to race, sexuality, gender, and Covid-19 have reached a tipping point. According to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education and RAND, half of school system leaders say that these disagreements are disrupting schooling.
Almost one in three district leaders also said their educators had received verbal or written threats about politically controversial topics since fall 2021, the report shows.
The findings come from surveys issued to 300 district and charter network leaders and interviews with superintendents. Their responses shed light on how political polarization has affected classrooms and how districts are responding.
Key findings include:
- Political polarization about LGTBQ+ issues, critical race theory, and Covid-19 has disrupted schooling. Roughly half of district leaders in a nationally representative survey (51 percent) reported that political polarization around at least one of these issues was interfering with their ability to educate students as of fall 2022. Leaders of districts serving predominantly white students were more likely to report political polarization was interfering with schooling.
- Political polarization has led to public requests for information, instructional opt-outs, and book removals. Almost half of district leaders (45 percent) reported dealing with more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests since the start of the 2021–22 school year. Leaders of low-poverty districts were more likely to report requests to remove books from libraries and to opt-out children from instruction about controversial subjects.
- Political controversies have resulted in threats against educators. Nearly one in three district leaders (31 percent) reported verbal or written threats against educators about politically controversial topics since the start of the 2021–22 school year. Reported threats were most common in historically advantaged districts (i.e., low-poverty districts, suburban districts, and majority-white districts). Threats were also more common in “island” districts, or those whose local political context did not match their state political context (i.e., blue districts in red states or red districts in blue states).
- District leaders have acted to quell political controversy. Almost half of district leaders (46 percent) who confronted political controversies in their district reported taking actions that have helped mitigate the impact on schooling. These actions included new processes for teaching controversial content, proactive management of controversies, and increased information sharing. Few districts, however, have changed instructional content or services in response to political controversy.
This report presents results from the fall 2022 survey of the American School District Panel (ASDP). The ASDP is a research partnership between RAND and CRPE. The panel also collaborates with several other education organizations, including the Council of the Great City Schools and Kitamba, to help improve outcomes for students throughout the United States.