Less than three weeks before the 2022 midterm elections, K-12 schools remain a hot-button issue in political campaigns, with politicians debating everything from the supposed presence of critical race theory in schools to LGBTQ student rights.
At the center of it all are teachers—some of whom fear consequences for touching on subjects like race, gender, sexuality, and even slavery and the Holocaust, according to new data from the EdWeek Research Center.
The survey of 1,019 teachers, school leaders, and district leaders conducted from Sept. 27 through Oct. 4 represents educators from across the political spectrum, with 32 percent identifying as liberal, 33 percent moderate, and 35 percent conservative.
Regardless of political ideology, these educators are overwhelmingly opposed to restrictions on classroom instruction, learning materials, and curriculum about controversial topics, though those in support of restrictions are not an insignificant minority.
The survey also found most teachers aren’t touching on potentially controversial topics in the classroom, and those who do have received mixed reactions from their supervisors, students’ parents, and the community. In very few cases, teachers have been threatened or faced legal or disciplinary action.
Here are some highlights of K-12 educator political sentiment as the Nov. 8 general election approaches.
Most teachers don’t touch on potentially controversial topics
The majority of the subset of teachers who responded to the survey—56 percent—don’t discuss potentially controversial topics, such as ethnicity or race, politics, slavery, gender, religion, sexual orientation, the Holocaust, or sex education, in the classroom. When asked why they don’t address controversial topics, 39 percent say those topics aren’t related to the subject they teach, so they don’t come up in the classroom.
But fear of repercussions from discussing controversial topics is another common reason why teachers have avoided them.
In total, 32 percent of teachers who don’t talk about controversial topics said they’re concerned about legal consequences, worry about how their supervisors or administrators would react, or that their supervisors and administrators warned them not to.
Just 17 percent said they don’t believe the controversial topics should be addressed at school altogether, and 21 percent felt that their students are too young to handle those topics.
Reactions to discussions of ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality vary
For teachers who responded to the survey and have addressed sensitive subjects like ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality, the reactions from their students, supervisors, and the community have been mixed.
Thirty-two percent of teachers said they’ve never discussed ethnicity and race and 57 percent said they haven’t discussed gender and sexual orientation, so they haven’t experienced any reactions.
Forty-one percent haven’t received any reaction when they have addressed ethnicity and race, and 22 percent have received positive reactions—encouragement, praise, or pressure to address the topic more. Twelve percent of teachers have experienced negative reactions, including criticism, disciplinary action, threats, and pressure to address the topic less.
Twenty-three percent haven’t received any reactions when they discussed gender and sexuality, 13 percent have received positive reactions, and 12 percent have received negative reactions, including legal action.
Teachers express mixed comfort levels with controversial topics
Regardless of whether they address the topics in the classroom, teachers expressed mixed levels of comfort when it comes to discussing topics including sex education, gender and sexual orientation, politics, religion, ethnicity and race, slavery, and the Holocaust.
Teachers who responded to the survey were most uncomfortable with discussing sex education followed by gender and sexual orientation. They were most comfortable discussing slavery and the Holocaust: 82 percent of teachers said they’re comfortable with those topics.
School and district leaders often don’t ask teachers to avoid controversial topics
Forty-five percent of school and district leaders said they haven’t asked the teachers they supervise or oversee to avoid controversial topics. Politics was the most common topic for school and district leaders to avoid, with 11 percent of respondents saying they’ve requested teachers to not talk about it.
Thirty-six percent of the school and district leaders who responded to the survey said they haven’t asked teachers to avoid talking about controversial topics because they don’t directly or indirectly oversee teachers.
Educators oppose state government restrictions on learning content
So far, 17 states have passed laws limiting classroom discussions of race and racism and many more have tried to ban discussions of a variety of controversial topics.
The teachers, school leaders and district leaders who responded to the survey are most opposed to restrictions on content related to slavery, the Holocaust, religion, ethnicity, and race, with over 70 percent of survey respondents saying they oppose limits on those topics. While still an overwhelming majority, fewer educators said they oppose restrictions on discussions about politics, on sex education, and on gender and sexual orientation-related content.
Notably, nearly a quarter of teachers, school leaders, and district leaders said they were in support of restrictions to content related to slavery and the Holocaust, two subjects that have been taught in schools for decades and show up in many states’ content standards for social studies.
Educators don’t avoid participating in political activities
As the fervor over K-12 schools has grown, teachers, school leaders, and district leaders have not shied away from being politically active, though 43 percent of these educators said they have avoided political activities some or a lot out of concern they might create problems with their job.
Some of the most common political activities among educators were “attempting to persuade a friend or colleagues to change their minds about a political topic,” which 62 percent of survey respondents said they have done since the 2020 election. Sixty percent of survey respondents said they’ve contacted an elected official and 43 percent said they’ve contributed money to a political cause.
School safety, educational equity, and K-12 funding are prominent issues in political campaigns
Seventy-four percent of the teachers, school leaders, and district leaders who responded to the survey said school safety—a specific point of concern after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 students and two teachers earlier this year—has been discussed some or a lot in community and statewide campaigns.
Educational equity and K-12 funding levels have also received a lot of campaign attention with 60 percent of survey respondents saying equity is coming up some or a lot and 68 percent saying funding has as well.