Families & the Community

Poll: Parents Don’t Want Schools to Focus on Culture Wars

By Eesha Pendharkar — January 31, 2023 4 min read
Kids holding signs against Critical Race Theory at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., on April 22, 2022.
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More than two thirds of voters and parents are not worried about teachers indoctrinating kids, pushing a “woke” agenda on them, or teaching “critical race theory,” as some Republican lawmakers and far-right parent groups have been accusing schools of doing for more than a year.

That’s according to a December 2022 poll by the American Federation of Teachers, which collected information from more than 1,500 voters, including 558 parents, about their priorities and areas of concern about public education. The participants in the national poll were evenly split on the political spectrum.

Fighting indoctrination, the “woke” agenda or the teaching of CRT are common reasons cited by Republican lawmakers for introducing or supporting challenges to books, and legislation that restricts the rights of students to learn certain lessons about race and racism or limit LGBTQ students’ rights in school.

However, new data shows that voters don’t see those as important issues. Two-thirds of voters said that these kinds of culture wars distract public schools from their core mission of educating students, according to the poll.

Instead, most parents and voters agreed that districts should focus on providing a safe and welcoming environment for children, ensuring that all children, regardless of background, have the opportunity to succeed, making sure students have strong fundamental skills in reading, math, and science, and developing students’ critical thinking and reasoning skills.

“In states that have any kind of MAGA control, they’re ignoring what parents want,” said Randi Weingarten, AFT president, referring to states where right-wing policymakers are the dominant influence.

“They’re going to do their damnedest to try to change public opinion, and to try to just destroy public schools and basically demonize public school teachers,” she added.

The success of culture wars

Although most parents and voters said they do not want fights over indoctrination or the “woke” agenda, schools across the country have been forced to engage in those fights for almost two years now.

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 these issues since the 2021-22 school year started.

Since 2021, Republican lawmakers in almost all states have proposed bills limiting teaching about race and racism in public schools under the guise of opposing critical race theory, which is an academic concept generally taught at the college level as a framework to examine how racism is systemic. Eighteen states have passed such laws, called “divisive concepts” laws, which ban teaching that anyone is inherently racist, should feel guilt or anguish because of their race, and bears responsibility for past actions of their race.

Although the vast majority of K-12 teachers aren’t teaching students any of these concepts, the laws are written vaguely enough that it has created fear among teachers and made them avoid these discussions in the classroom. For districts that have continued having such discussions, the consequences have been dire: Teachers have lost their jobs, and districts have been bumped down in accreditation.

Book bans have also spread like wildfire since last year, with thousands of books being challenged in hundreds of districts over two years. Most recently, anti-LGBTQ policies and laws have also started proliferating. These laws limit the rights of students, especially trans and non-binary students, to participate in sports, have their pronouns and gender expression respected, and even use the bathrooms of their choice.

“Any propaganda works when you think that there’s something that you can divide,” Weingarten said, “And there are some true believers, but it is a real minority.”

Parents and teachers should be working together

Some of the top priorities parents and voters chose in the poll include students having strong fundamental skills in math, reading, and science, all students having a chance to succeed despite disparities in their backgrounds, and all of them having access to a safe learning environment. These are the same priorities teachers have for their students, Weingarten said.

“It’s parents and teachers together, who together act as the safety net, as the opportunity agent, as the ladder for kids,” Weingarten said. “And so, these other folks are trying to divide parents and teachers, and we’re trying to bring parents and teachers together.”

But the culture wars are contributing to the already heightened teacher shortage, which is another priority for poll respondents.

“You become a teacher, because you want to make a difference in the lives of kids,” Weingarten said. “And when somebody is calling you a groomer, is telling you that you’re bad when the work that you’re doing is to try to make a difference in the lives of kids, it’s a primal wound.”

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