Published Online: January 22, 1997

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Ties Between Ideology, Education Views Probed

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Although a majority of local school board members describe themselves as political and religious conservatives, that orientation does not always affect the way they view key issues in education, a national survey of members of the National School Boards Association concludes.

The findings show that some of the education reforms most closely linked with conservatives, such as vouchers and school prayer, do not enjoy support from a majority of the nation's 95,000 school board members.

Not surprisingly, however, the board members who support such proposals are much more likely to describe themselves as religious or political conservatives, the survey found.

"School board members' views on education issues are often colored by personal political, and religious leanings," says the report, published in this month's issue of The American School Board Journal. "But board members' religion and politics do not always predict their views on education."

Only 31 percent of board members surveyed, for example, support the idea of publicly funded vouchers that would enable parents to send their children to private and religious schools. However, 76 percent of those who favored the idea described themselves as religious conservatives.

Beliefs and Actions

The survey sought to explore the links between board members' conservative or liberal orientation and their attitudes about education issues, including school choice, prayer, and sex education. (See some of the survey findings.)

It was conducted by the magazine and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. Researchers mailed questionnaires to 6,135 members of the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA, and received 1,247 replies. The findings have a margin of error of 1 percentage point.

The results "strongly suggest that, overall, board members' public actions are not automatically tied to their personal philosophies and beliefs," the report says.

Though 54 percent of all respondents considered themselves religious conservatives, for example, only 31.2 percent of the members surveyed support a constitutional amendment that would sanction prayer in public schools.

"All students may pray in school now--silently," one board member wrote. "Those who feel their children need to spend their school day in a religious atmosphere should send their children to private school at their own expense."

Some Survey Findings

Among the results from the survey of 1,247 school board members are the following:

  • About 54 percent consider themselves religious conservatives; 36.1 percent describe themselves as religious liberals.
  • About 65.4 percent say they are political conservatives; 28.5 percent see themselves as political liberals.
  • Two-thirds agree that school choice plans would widen economic and racial gaps between schools, though 59.5 percent of that segment add that the plans would force schools to be more responsive to their communities.
  • When asked whether Christian or non-Christian prayer should be allowed at school functions, just under half said Christian prayer was a good idea, and 45.8 percent said that non-Christian prayer is appropriate.
  • About 60 percent say they support beginning comprehensive sex education in the elementary grades. Of that segment, 51.1 percent describe themselves as religious liberals, and the remainder identify themselves as religious conservatives. Of those opposed to early comprehensive sex education, 77.9 percent say they are religious conservatives.

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