Andrew Zimmerman, a social studies teacher and self-described libertarian, and Jeanné Collins, a superintendent and big fan of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, aren’t anyone’s idea of political soul mates.
But both educators agree on one thing: It isn’t their role to talk about their own political beliefs at school, particularly in an increasingly polarized climate.
“I usually don’t tell my students my viewpoints,” said Zimmerman, a high school teacher in Uhrichsville, Ohio, in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Republican Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election. “It’s my job to show as many different perspectives as possible.”
That’s been tricky this past year. Zimmerman, who also advises the debate club, said it’s been hard to find any student willing to take up the Democratic side of an argument.
Similarly, Collins, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union district in deep-blue Vermont, said she sees her role as staying “above the fray,” even though her left-leaning political beliefs align closely with the majority of voters in her community.
But while many educators guard against bringing their personal views into the classroom, they are hardly apolitical as a group, a national survey by the Education Week Research Center shows.
About half of the teachers, school principals, superintendents, and other educators who participated in the survey say they don’t avoid political activity, or avoid it only a little, because of their jobs. Another 48 percent say they avoid political activity to “some” extent or “a lot” because of the work they do.
The Education Week Research Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of teachers, school-based leaders, and district leaders about their politics and views on a wide range of K-12 issues. The 38-question survey was administered in September and October to 1,122 educators including 555 teachers, 266 school leaders, 202 district leaders, and 99 other school or district employees. The margin of error for the survey overall was plus or minus 5 percent. Followup interviews involved survey respondents who agreed to be contacted after the survey and were willing to be quoted on a range of subjects.
More Survey Findings:
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- Survey Shows Educators Struggle With Impact of Immigration
The research center surveyed 1,122 teachers, school, and district leaders about their political beliefs, perceptions, activity, and voting. The survey, conducted this fall, has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. About half of those who responded were teachers, and another 19 percent were principals.
A few key findings:
• Forty one percent of respondents described themselves as Democrats while another 30 percent said they were independents. Just 27 percent were Republicans.
• Half the respondents voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Another 29 percent voted for Trump. Thirteen percent selected a third-party candidate.
• By and large, educators aren’t fans of school choice—even if they voted for Trump, who made it a signature issue. A plurality of all those surveyed—45 percent—"fully oppose” charter schools, while another 26 percent “somewhat oppose” them. And 58 percent don’t support using government funds to help students cover the cost of private school, while 19 percent said they “somewhat oppose” vouchers.
• Forty-four percent of educators said they see the impact of immigration on schools as “mixed,” while another 38 percent said it is a “good thing.” Only 8 percent see it as a “bad thing.”
Politics and the Classroom
Even though educators see keeping up a neutral front as part of their jobs, politics has a way of creeping into their work these days. In Collins’ district, a handful of students wanted to kneel during the national anthem during a school sporting event in solidarity with professional athletes protesting racial inequity.
Meanwhile halfway across the country in Portage, Mich., Jason Frink, a high school assistant principal, and his colleagues intervened when a small, but vocal, group of students shouted “Build the wall!” at one of their Mexican-American classmates in the weeks after the election.
“It’s OK to have different political beliefs,” Frink said he explained to the students. But he told them they couldn’t “do things that tell other kids they can’t be a part of our school.”
It isn’t just interactions with students that are politically itchy. Eleven percent of educators responding to the survey said they’ve been called upon to settle partisan disputes among district employees since the election.
Last year, shortly after the election, a Trump voter who works in the district’s central office told Collins confidentially that she felt bullied for her choice by Democratic co-workers.
And in St. Louis, Ernie Bebe, who teaches religion at Trinity Catholic High School, said a couple of his colleagues gave him a hard time for supporting Trump. Lately, Bebe has thought twice about advertising to some in his racially diverse community that his son is a police officer.
In Taneytown, Md., Gayle Sands, a reading specialist and an independent who supported Clinton, said the election brought some uncomfortable political differences out in the open. “I work in a community that the election divided,” said Sands of the area surrounding the middle school where she teaches. “I think they were shocked at me,” she said of her Trump-supporting colleagues, and “I was shocked at them. I couldn’t understand how they were able to square their religious beliefs with the man he has proven himself to be.”
Sands feels like the political middle is getting swamped by extremists.
“I think that as teachers that we’re kind of in the forefront of the fight” against polarization, she said. “We are the one place that the entire community has to come to. ... Nobody is hearing normal people who are out there.”
Like Sands, the educators surveyed largely said they tend to look at hot-button issues with a nuanced eye:
• Forty three percent of the educators surveyed see themselves as “moderate.” The rest were slightly more likely to lean to the left than the right. Nearly 30 percent describe themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.”
• Twenty seven percent view themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative.”
• Seventy percent give Republicans a “D” or an “F” for their handling of K-12 policy. Forty five percent give Democrats a “D” or “F.” Each party gets an “A” from only 1 percent of respondents.
Although educators say they stay largely neutral in the classroom, that doesn’t necessarily apply to their lives outside of school.
Beth Boxley, a media specialist and high school English teacher in a small rural Missouri district, shields her Democratic political beliefs from her Trump T-shirt wearing students. But she once attended an Obama rally. And Collins, the Vermont school superintendent, knocked on doors for Sanders in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She’ll occasionally post “pro-Bernie or pro-Democratic” messages on her personal Facebook page, too.
That kind of political activity is not unusual. Sixty six percent of those who participated in the survey have contacted an elected official since the 2016 presidential campaign. And more than half have attempted to persuade a friend or colleague to change their mind about a political issue. Almost another quarter have given money to a political cause.
Some other survey findings may seem counterintuitive. Despite the Democratic tilt of the survey pool, more than half of the respondents—52 percent—want to see a leaner federal role in K-12 policy. By contrast, 27 percent thought the U.S. Department of Education has about the right level of involvement and 15 percent wanted to see more involvement.
“I believe in states’ rights,” said Laura Hansen, a Democrat and reading specialist in New Hampshire’s Hampstead school district. “The mandates [the federal government] sometimes puts forth are excellent but a lot of the times the mandates are unfunded, so that presents a problem.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is unpopular across the board—even more so than her boss. Sixty seven percent of those surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, but 72 percent said they didn’t like DeVos.
DeVos’ detractors include some educators who voted for Trump in 2016 and continue to support the president.
“I think he probably could have made a wiser choice,” said Jason Tackett, a social studies teacher at Herald Whitaker Middle School in Kentucky’s Magoffin County, about an hour and a half drive from Lexington. Tackett is not happy that DeVos never worked professionally in a public school—or any school for that matter.
Divergent as they may be on numerous issues, many educators also say schools have the potential to bridge yawning political divides in their communities.
“We live in incredibly divisive political times,” said Brian Gatens, the superintendent of Emerson Public Schools in New Jersey. He said schools can remind students of things like the importance of caring about neighbors and community.
An earlier version of this story was titled, “Survey Paints Political Portrait of America’s K-12 Educators”.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Leaving Partisan Divisions Outside Their Classrooms