School & District Management

Political Tensions in Schools Are ‘Pervasive,’ Principals Say

By Libby Stanford — November 30, 2022 | Updated: November 30, 2022 6 min read
Image of political tension surrounding school leaders.
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Updated: An earlier version of this story was incorrectly published ahead of an embargo. Education Week regrets the error.

Nearly 70 percent of high school principals reported substantial political conflict over hot-button issues like race, LGBTQ students’ rights, access to books in libraries, and social-emotional learning in a recent survey, which researchers say indicates that political tensions in schools are “growing and pervasive.”

And almost half of the 682 high school principals from all 50 states surveyed in interviews by University of California Los Angeles and University of California Riverside researchers said the amount of community-level conflict during the 2021-22 school year was “more” or “much more” than in the 2018-19 school year—only three percent said it was less.

The data, from a new report titled “Educating for a Diverse Democracy,” takes a look at the ways in which political divides have impacted classrooms since the beginning of the pandemic. The survey is a follow-up to a similar 2018 survey in which researchers asked principals about how societal issues were impacting schools.

Principals reported increased pressure and political conflict from parents and community members that have led to student behavior issues, rising vitriol within the community, and efforts to censor how teachers talk about race, gender, and sexuality.

“That created a context in which, one, many principals as well as their staff felt a great deal of stress; that it was very challenging,” said Joseph Kahne, an education policy and politics professor at UC Riverside and one of the authors of the report. “But even more importantly, we saw evidence that that had a constraining influence on whether they supported practices that would educate for a diverse democracy.”

Principals report pushback from parents on curriculum

Fifty percent of principals reported that parents or other community members sought to limit or challenge “teaching and learning about issues of race and racism.”

Nearly as many—48 percent—of principals reported efforts to limit or challenge policies and practices related to LGBTQ students’ rights, and a third of principals reported the same for student access to books in the school library that parents and community members deemed inappropriate. Thirty-nine percent of principals said parents and community members sought to limit or challenge social-emotional learning.

Researchers said the data reflect the lasting impact of conservative parental rights movements and nationwide attention to critical race theory, the academic concept that says race is a social construct and embedded into legal systems and policies.

Principals reported parents and community members sharing concerns over critical race theory’s presence in schools and refusing to believe that teachers weren’t teaching it. The experience has been particularly disorienting for conservative principals who find themselves in disagreement with people with whom they typically agree.

“In the sake of full disclosure, I’m a registered Republican. I’m a fiscal conservative. So, I’m talking about the people that I claim to vote with,” a principal in Kentucky said in the report. “But, [critical race theory is] not there. I really firmly believe you would find [in] most high schools, critical race theory was not in a required course to any real extent, that it was a flash card created by a group with an agenda.”

Student behavior reflects political tensions

Nearly 70 percent of principals reported that “students have made demeaning or hateful comments toward classmates for expressing either liberal or conservative views,” according to the survey. And 62 percent of principals said differences in political opinion among students made for contentious classroom environments.

The data indicate the start of a troubling path, in which students are unable to have productive conversations about their political differences because of growing tensions, said John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA and also an author of the report.

“Once schools themselves are targeted for political attack, it opens up, I would say, the floodgates even further and it leads young people to think, ‘Hey we need to be a party to this campaign. We need to participate in this campaign even further,’ ” Rogers said.

The issue will only get worse if schools limit teaching about so-called controversial topics, like racism’s role in history and LGBTQ student issues and rights, Kahne said.

“It’s widely believed that one of the things that is the fundamental purpose of schools is to prepare young people to have informed and respectful debates and discussions about the controversial issues that affect them and the society,” Kahne said. “If they don’t have those opportunities in schools … then the only places they will see what that looks like is on social media or in the public.”

Political tensions are worse in ‘purple’ communities

Principals in politically divided, or “purple,” congressional districts, in which 45-54.9 percent of the district voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, were more likely to report acute levels of community conflict than those in conservative congressional districts, where over 55 percent of the people voted for Trump in 2020, or liberal districts, where less than 44.9 percent of people voted for Tump.

For example, 81 percent of principals in purple communities reported students making demeaning or hateful remarks toward classmates for expressing liberal or conservative views compared to the 68 percent of principals in conservative communities and 66 percent of principals in liberal communities who reported the same.

Sixty-three percent of principals in purple communities reported parents or community members seeking to limit or challenge teaching about race and racism, while 48 percent of principals in conservative and 51 percent of principals in liberal communities did the same.

The heightened tensions in politically divided areas shouldn’t be surprising as communities with a diversity of thought are likely to have more disagreements, Rogers said. But the partisan breakdown is also evidence of political dynamics that have played out over the last two years, in which conservative think tanks, politicians, and groups have used schools to try and win congressional and school board majorities, he said.

“There has been a purposeful campaign supported from the summer of 2020 onwards to heighten conflict particularly in politically contested communities for the purpose of partisan gain,” Rogers said.

Where do we go from here?

Rogers and Kahne see the survey results as a call to action for the whole of society.

“We need a broad cross-section of the public that will come together and say, ‘We may have some differences in our political beliefs, but we are going to express our support of these core principals of a diverse democracy and the important role that public schools need to play in educating toward a diverse democracy,’ ” Rogers said.

In their research, Rogers and Kahne found that districts with superintendents who expressed a commitment to civics education were more likely to “provide supports related to controversial issue discussion, misinformation, the literature and history of diverse groups, and to address intolerance based on factors such as race and LGBTQ+ status.”

Sixty-one percent of principals in schools where district leaders placed a high emphasis on civics education said they have taken action to support LGBTQ students, and 44 percent of principals in similar districts said they’ve taken action to support learning about race and racism. In districts with a low emphasis on civics education, 50 percent of principals said they’ve taken action to support LGBTQ students and 30 percent said they’ve taken action to support learning about race and racism.

Principals who were more civically engaged on a personal level were also more likely to support LGBTQ students and learning about race and racism, Kahne said.

“If the community encourages leaders to do these things, it will help,” Kahne said. “It will mean parents showing up to board meetings saying, ‘this is important to us.’ That gives leaders a feeling of encouragement to move in that direction and a sense that someone will have their backs if they do the difficult work of standing up for these values in contentious times.”


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