Leading a school district—especially in the suburbs—has become a bruising political battle for some education leaders and the discord is detrimental to schools, a new report concludes.
Political fights over critical race theory, LGBTQ rights, and COVID policies are disrupting K-12 education and increasing the time educators are spending on responding to public-records requests seeking information about so-called “culture war” issues, according to a survey of school district leaders released Thursday.
And those tensions may be putting some educators in danger. About a third of district leaders who answered the survey last year said that they have educators working in their school systems who had gotten either verbal or written threats about hot-button issues since the 2021-22 school year started.
The fights appear to break out far more often in suburban school districts that serve larger numbers of white and affluent students. School systems located in cities, where the local politics lean in a different direction from their states’, were the exception.
“Those types of actions may be more prevalent in more-advantaged districts because more-advantaged community members are more likely to use their voice and have the sense of efficacy to call their school board members,” said Ashley Jochim, the lead author of the report, “Navigating Political Tensions Over Schooling: Findings From the Fall 2022 American School District Panel Survey,” released on Thursday.
“It just relates to higher levels of agency and efficacy among more-resourced community members.”
But an urban superintendent in a Democratic stronghold also told researchers that his district avoided local backlash because “identity politics or culture war issues” did not animate the community.
The nationally representative panel of school district and charter network leaders was polled last year as national debates over these topics dominated an election cycle and elevated public education as a major electoral issue in a way it hasn’t been for more than a decade.
While K-12 has always had political tensions—whether it’s over the Common Core State Standards or charter school expansion—the current debates take on a different flavor, Jochim said.
“One is that the partisan character of the debate has changed over time,” Jochim said. “There have always been conflicts, in some ways, about schools, in some contexts more than others. But that conflict has had an increasingly partisan or ideological flavor in the last few years. And, in part, as a function of that, it’s also drawn in more state and national actors into political conflicts that are happening locally.”
State level legislation and interest groups are also driving some of the increased attention and partisanship, Jochim said.
Division in suburban districts
Overall, 51 percent of the district leaders in the survey agreed or strongly agreed that discord over either critical race theory, issues related to the rights of lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer students, as well as COVID, is affecting their ability to educate students.
Fifty-six percent of leaders in school systems serving a majority of white students said that political tensions over one of those issues was disrupting schooling, compared to 37 percent of those in systems where the majority of students were students of color.
And 45 percent of district leaders said that they’d received more open record requests than previous years beginning at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
And even as school districts have removed most COVID mitigation strategies nearly three years into the pandemic, it continues to be divisive issue, even if less potent. Thirty-five percent of district leaders in the survey said COVID polarization was affecting education last fall, compared to nearly three-quarters in the fall of 2021.
But as discord over COVID declined, however, concerns about LGBTQ issues and critical race theory started to rise. By the fall of 2022, 46 percent of district leaders said that political polarization around LGBTQ issues was affecting education. Forty-one percent said concern about critical race theory was impacting schooling.
The report theorized that this timeline coincided with actions in state houses across the country related to those issues.
Verbal and written threats against educators were higher in suburban districts, where 43 percent of district leaders said educators had gotten threats. They were also more common in more-affluent districts, where 41 percent of district leaders reported their educators receiving threats over those divisive topics.
Threats were also more likely in districts serving white-majority students than in those where students of color made up the majority, 35 percent versus 17 percent.
About 25 percent of district leaders in conservative-leaning, or red states, said they had received threats about the divisive topic, less than those in more liberal, or blue states, and more politically mixed, or purple states.
Suburban districts were also more likely to receive requests to remove books from the library or curriculum and to opt out students from classes. They were also more likely to have formal complaints related to how they taught or conducted training on controversial topics lodged against them, according to the report.
Some district leaders reported that they were also making adjustments to quell the tension.
While a majority said they were not making instructional changes in response to the tension, 32 percent said they had modified, paused or made changes to one or more subject areas. The most-commonly affected subjects were social-emotional learning, health and sex education, and mental health services. But while some of the changes were minor—like changing the terms that the districts used—others were more significant. They included striking some controversial topics from the curriculum and avoiding discussions of elections entirely and of gender identity in the lower grades.
Social studies, U.S. History, and civics education—though the subjects of intense national debates—were less likely to be changed or modified, according to the report.
Responding to tension
Forty-six percent of district leaders said they took steps they thought successfully addressed the tensions. Some created new procedures for teachers to follow in response to parents who wanted to opt their child out of a class. Others told researchers that they had held one-on-one meetings with parents to combat misinformation and quell controversies.
“Sadly, none of this is surprising,” said Susan Enfield, the superintendent of Washoe County schools in Reno, Nev., who was superintendent in Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., at the start of the pandemic. “I wish we would just start standing up and saying, “No, this is not OK. It’s not OK.”
Enfield said that it’s becoming exhausting for district leaders, but the tension can also affect the quality of children’s education in the long-term. (Enfield is the chair of the board of trustees for Education Week.)
“It’s absolutely exhausting—this work is hard enough, without taking on that extra burden of figuring out what you can and can’t say,” Enfield said. “I think it raises questions around, at some point, are we moving away from factual instruction, especially around historical and societal issues? Are things being diluted to such a point where students aren’t really engaging in a factual way around the history, the historical issues, and current issues that we should all be grappling with?”
Rico Munn, the former superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, in Aurora, Colo., said the report’s findings were not surprising to him, though they did not reflect his personal experience. He stepped down as superintendent in December.
But he said he knew colleagues who had been doxxed, whose homes had been picketed, and who had received threats. Some had also had to battle their own school boards. Others left the job, he said.
But Munn also said that not all of the discord can be attributed to clear-cut liberal and conservative disagreements. In some cases, it’s a genuine issue of trust.
As superintendent in Aurora, he disagreed with the school board and the teachers’ union about when and how to return to in-person schooling. He stressed that it was not about politics, but people’s own sense of what was safe to do.
“People didn’t feel like they knew whom to trust and who to listen to,” he said. “That caused people to retreat to different sources to get a sense of truth. That caused great fear and division.”
But the debates and divisions make “everything more difficult.”
“It distracts educators from their core work, of taking care of and educating students,” he said.
One way that district leaders can push back against political tensions is to focus on building good relationships with their communities.
“The key is that you have to be in continual and close connection with your community,” Munn said, “because if your community doesn’t know who you are and fundamentally have a level of trust in you, then you can’t navigate these challenges.”
The report recommends, among other things, more research to understand whether some of the strategies that district leaders have used are effective at insulating educators and other front-line staff from the fallout from political tension, training for school board members to mitigate the disruption that can be caused by school board members focused on a single issue, and training for district leaders—both in preparation programs and in professional development—to help them manage political challenges.
The report—from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, The American School District Panel, assembled by RAND Education, and Arizona State University—is based on surveys of 300 district and leaders of charter management organizations conducted between October and December last year. It also drew on 22 interviews with seven superintendents between January 2021 and November last year.