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Schools Holding In-Person Classes More Likely to Be in Trump Country, Study Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 31, 2020 3 min read
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Schools planning to reopen with in-person classes are more likely to be in communities that voted for Donald Trump four years ago, while there’s no correlation between those plans and the share of local coronavirus cases.

That’s the main finding from a study published July 29 by the Brookings Institution. Using data from Education Week’s database of school disrict reopening plans and other sources, Jon Valant, a senior fellow for governance studies at Brookings’ Brown Center on Education Policy, found that, on average, districts with plans to resume face-to-face instruction are in counties where 55 percent of voters supported Trump in 2016.

Meanwhile, districts in the database offering only remote learning to start the 2020-21 school year are in counties where 35 percent of voters backed Trump.

While earlier in the pandemic Trump expressed a desire for schools to physically reopen in the 2020-21 school year, he and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have campaigned heavily in recent weeks for in-person classes to resume, although Trump backed off somewhat from that demand a week ago. They’ve argued that children will be much better off in school than otherwise, and that fears about students transmitting the virus are exaggerated. (DeVos, meanwhile, just awarded money under a coronavirus grant program she created to support distance learning.)

But that rhetoric, and a Republican virus aid bill that conditions some relief money on whether schools resume face-to-face instruction, have led to harsh criticism from many in the K-12 community.

In an interview, Valant was blunt about his view of the approach from Trump and DeVos: “I think it’s stunning and awful.”

Here’s the image from Valant that captures his findings:

“We need to be clear-eyed that national politics—and the strings attached to federal resources—can affect the decisions of local and state leaders,” Valant wrote about his findings, adding later: “Now is a time for local and state policymakers to focus on the best interests of their communities, apart from how that relates to matters of ideology and national politics.”

There are a few important caveats about the data:

  • When Valant looked at EdWeek’s database of reopening plans, it included 256 school districts educating 13 million students, but it isn’t (and isn’t designed to be) nationally representative, politically or otherwise.
  • School district and county boundaries often do not align.
  • Valant looked at 2016 election results, but of course in some communities politics can and have changed significantly since then.
  • While Valant looked at Trump votes in 2016, he didn’t look at the share of local voters who backed Hillary Clinton or other candidates.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the correlation between Trump voter share and reopening plans shouldn’t be interpreted as a causal relationship.

Nevertheless, Valant told me, even when he controlled for racial demographics and other important factors, the link between 2016 support for Trump and district plans continued to stand out.

“It’s local politics that it is what is really predictive of what schools in that EdWeek database have announced that they’re doing,” he said.

So how do educators feel about the prospect of returning to school buildings?

In a recent EdWeek survey, the vast majorities of school leaders (96 percent) and district leaders (90 percent) say they are willing to return to their school building for in-person instruction, compared to 81 percent of teachers.

For his analysis, Valant also relied on information from the U.S. Department of Education and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data + Science Lab.