Equity & Diversity

What an Analysis of School District Mission Statements Revealed

By Eesha Pendharkar — April 04, 2023 3 min read
Students line up by class on colored dots in the school gym to wait for their rides after dismissal at Wesley Elementary School in Middletown, Conn., on Oct. 5, 2020.
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School district mission statements, which indicate the educational priorities of the district, are more or less aligned on topics such as students’ academic skills, a safe and healthy learning environment, and future readiness.

However, when it comes to mentioning diversity, equity, or inclusion as a top priority for the district, mission statements across the country vary, reflecting the widening political gap between communities and its impact on school districts.

That’s according to a Pew Research Center analysis of more than 1,300 mission statements from districts across the country. Overall, 34 percent of school districts highlight the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in their mission statements, the report found. In contrast, more than 80 percent of statements mention preparing students for their futures after graduation; around two-thirds mention the importance of providing a safe, nurturing, and healthy environment for students, and just over half prioritize parent and community involvement in their statements.

But, unlike the more commonly mentioned topics, there is a political divide between districts that include some version of diversity, equity, and inclusion as priorities, according to the report, and those that don’t.

Fifty six percent of districts in Democratic-voting areas mention their DEI efforts in their mission statements but only 26 percent in Republican-voting areas do.

(Republican or Democratic districts are determined by whether the majority of residents voted for former President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden, respectively, in the 2020 presidential election.)

“Red America and blue America are … living in very different worlds when it comes to public education,” said Aaron Smith, who led the research on mission statements. “We see that in public opinion research on what right-leaning and left-leaning parents think should or should not be taught or promoted at schools. We can see that in the laws being passed in red states and blue states, either banning certain types of instruction or, in other cases, actually promoting those same types of approaches.”

DEI is also mentioned unevenly based on the location, wealth, and demographics of the school districts.

Urban and suburban school districts are at least twice as likely as those in rural areas to mention DEI, the analysis found. However, 9 out of 10 rural districts are located in Republican communities, compared with 41 percent of suburban and 31 percent of urban districts. Finally, diversity-related topics are also more common in school district mission statements from areas with relatively high median incomes, as well as areas with a lower proportion of white residents, the report found.

The issue of DEI not being prioritized consistently in mission statements isn’t necessarily a result of state- and local-level attacks on public education, such as book bans, laws restricting lessons on race and racism and policies restricting the rights of LGBTQ+ students in schools, Smith said.

“This isn’t the place where the culture war tends to really make a front-and-center appearance,” he said. “It’s really a matter of certain districts choosing to prioritize certain issues, and downplay or just ignore issues, rather than actively attack or dismiss them.”

Districts in Republican communities are also less likely to mention social and emotional learning terms in their mission statements, researchers found.

The terms districts use to talk about DEI

The researchers classified a list of terms as referring to DEI while classifying which school districts mention it in their mission statements. Some of those terms are inclusion, equity, diversity, [respecting] cultural differences; multiculturality, celebrating diversity, culturally responsive teaching, closing the achievement gap, and equal opportunity.

The type of language used to refer to DEI also differs with the political leaning of a community within which a district is located, the report found. Even within districts that mention DEI as a priority, the terms used to describe it differ widely.

Some of the most common terms districts use to describe DEI are culture and diversity, each of which is mentioned in about 25 percent of all mission statements. However, equity and inclusion each appear only in 10 percent of mission statements.

Within the subset of mission statements that do mention diversity-related issues, comparable percentages of districts located in Democratic- and Republican-voting areas use terms like diversity.

But those from more liberal communities are more likely to mention terms like equity, inclusivity, and closing the achievement gap.

Only 3 percent of all mission statements use terms like race, and fewer than 1 percent of the documents mention nationality.

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