Results from a recent RAND survey of a nationally representative group of district leaders reveal how widespread political polarization has become inside school districts. And the implications for the future of public education are worrisome. So-called “critical race theory” instruction has become a common flashpoint—but it’s the particular polarization about COVID-19 vaccines and school safety practices that a majority of district leaders viewed as disruptive this school year.
Although disagreement about protecting students from COVID-19 may recede as districts drop mask mandates and cases remain low in many parts of the country, dissension could easily resurface with a new variant or if teachers choose to remain masked when no longer required. Alternately, if pandemic debates are just a proxy fight against perceived intrusions on parental autonomy, the topic of polarized debate may shift but remain just as virulent.
Of the 357 school district leaders we surveyed in November, nearly three-quarters agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Political polarization about COVID-19 safety or vaccines is interfering with our ability to educate students.” By contrast, about 43 percent—regardless of the poverty level, race, or urbanicity of their district—said that the polarization around critical race theory was also interfering with their ability to educate students.
Polarization around COVID-19 measures was concentrated in majority-white districts, rural and suburban districts, and low-poverty districts. For example, 79 percent of leaders in majority-white districts—compared with 63 percent of majority-student-of-color districts—agreed that political polarization over safety or vaccines was interfering with their ability to educate students. Over 70 percent of rural and suburban district leaders said the same. Meanwhile, three-quarters of leaders in low-poverty districts (compared with a little over half in high-poverty ones) agreed that parent or community belief in misinformation about COVID-19 was interfering with the district’s ability to educate students.
These district results about polarization align with the significant differences in parents’ attitudes toward COVID-19. Back in July—when the delta variant had become dominant and case numbers were rising—we fielded a nationally representative survey of over 3,000 parents of children ages 5-18 to ask what it would take to make them feel safe sending their children to school in person. The statement, “I am not concerned that COVID-19 is a significant risk for my child,” was endorsed by 39 percent of white parents compared with only 8 percent of Black parents, 12 percent of Hispanic parents, and 13 percent of Asian parents. White parents expressed the least demand for school pandemic safety practices such as classroom ventilation, teacher vaccination requirements, social distancing, COVID-19 testing, or mandatory masking. For example, a third of white parents wanted masks to be required for students and adults in school compared with two-thirds of Hispanic, Black, and Asian parents.
Parents’ views of COVID-19 risk and school safety practices also differed substantially according to their location: 41 percent of rural parents—as opposed to 19 percent of urban parents—did not see COVID-19 as a significant risk for their child. (Parents’ perception of this risk did not appear to vary according to whether their child was age-eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.) Relatedly, 34 percent of rural parents and 46 percent of suburban parents compared with 55 percent of urban parents wanted mandatory masking at school.
In times of crisis and stability, schools require parental trust to function well, yet trust is in short supply right now, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Parents with financial means can vote with their feet, either by moving to a school or district that is more aligned to their politics, by home schooling their child, or by enrolling their child in a private, virtual, or charter school. Enrollments in home school, private school, virtual school have increased, though these trends may not each outlast the pandemic. This type of self-sorting in school selections can worsen social and demographic polarization.
States and municipalities could help safeguard public schools from polarization in several ways.
Other byproducts of polarization—such as educators being threatened online or in person or self-censoring in the classroom for fear of sanction or causing offense—could spur teachers to leave the profession or prevent prospective educators from entering it. Elevated work stress already had a quarter of teachers considering quitting last school year, according to a 2021 RAND teacher survey, though we have not seen the mass resignations that some predicted.
States and municipalities could help safeguard public schools from polarization in several ways. For instance, when it becomes necessary, they could set more detailed, evidence-based pandemic policies for campuses, rather than leaving each school or district to craft its own rules without political cover. Similarly, state education agencies could help deflect political pushback against teachers and school administrators by providing clear information about which instructional materials are and are not aligned with academic standards and state policies.
School leaders including superintendents, school boards, and principals also need to set clear, consistent direction for schools, which they cannot do if trying to meet contradictory demands. Too many teachers and schools are left to interpret laws and regulations themselves, leaving them at the mercy of their highly polarized constituents.
Looking ahead to the next phases of this pandemic or future ones, schools would benefit from more health guidance that can serve as guard rails to help navigate dissenting opinion. Likewise, instructional guidance from a district and state that still leaves schools room to make choices within consistent guidance can help protect against time-consuming community battles.
Political polarization that rises to the level of interfering with schooling isn’t simply a headache; it’s a fundamental problem for public education. When there is deep disagreement over the essentials—what schools teach, how they keep children safe—schools are at risk of becoming ungovernable.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as What Is Really Polarizing Schools Right Now?