Do parents of school-age children want their legislators to spend time curtailing what’s taught in classrooms about race? Or would parents be happier if lawmakers worked, say, on mechanisms to combat the effects of the highest yearly inflation in decades? Or focused on keeping public schools safe and stable as the pandemic wanes?
A poll we conducted among a representative sample of parents of school-age children in our state of Missouri suggests that proposed new legislation aimed at classroom treatments of race plays political football much more than it answers true parental concern.
If you live in one of the other 40 states that has banned or is considering banning or curtailing public school instruction related to institutional racism or to critical race theory, you, too, can see the football being tossed. Fourteen states already have passed such legislation while lawmakers in others, such as in Missouri, where we research education policy, are debating it.
Banning CRT and related scholarship from schools has become a central plank in the new national wave of parents’ bill of rights measures. A Missouri bill, for example, would ban schools from using curricula that “identifies people or groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, biased, privileged, or oppressed.” Republican proponents of such bills say their motivating idea is to empower parents and build trust between parents and educators.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has endorsed proposed “parents’ rights” legislation in his home state and has proposed similar legislation in Congress. Bills banning or curtailing discussions of racism have sprouted up in states as different as Tennessee and New York.
Though it’s been around since at least the 1970s, primarily as a college-level topic, CRT has much more recently become an object of hostility among some groups who falsely claim the scholarship has infiltrated K-12 school curricula. Some states have also advanced so-called “curriculum transparency” legislation requiring schools to publicly post curricular materials with an eye to curtailing racism-related instruction. These CRT curriculum “audits,” initiated by parties including state education departments and legislators, often resemble witch hunts evoking McCarthyistic sentiments. In Missouri, state survey results indicated only 1 of 425 responding districts include CRT-related instruction.
The label “parents’ bills of rights” has been widely used by bill drafters, but has anyone asked parents whether they think schools should actually be allowed to teach about institutional racism? We did, and we found that the views of Missouri parents are consistent with legislators spending time on issues other than this one.
The 2021 SLU/YouGov Poll of Missouri parents of school-age children suggests that most parents’ desires would be hindered by the proposal for a “Parents’ Bill of Rights for Student Well-Being.” If that is true in Missouri, perhaps it is true for others among the remaining 29 states with Republican-controlled legislatures.
We are not alone in believing that recent directives concerning the permissibility of race-related instruction have clouded educator capacities to engage students in meaningful lessons on the role race plays in current events and our nation’s history. States have often failed to clarify new vaguely worded instructional restrictions, confusing and demoralizing teachers and school leaders. Such regulations don’t promote education; they impede it.
In our survey, we randomized whether parents were asked if schools: 1) “should be allowed to teach about how racism can exist in society and its institutions” or 2) “should be allowed to teach critical race theory.” Because these instructional approaches have much in common, disparities in survey responses could be attributable, in our view, to the disingenuous weaponizing of CRT by politicians and pundits rather than parents’ actual preferences.
When asked whether schools should be allowed to teach CRT, Missouri parents were greatly divided: Thirty-seven percent agreed, 36 percent disagreed, and 27 percent were unsure. However, when asked whether schools should be allowed to teach about institutional racism, a clear majority emerged: Sixty-two percent of Missouri parents agreed that schools should be allowed to teach about institutional racism, one-quarter disagreed, and 1 in 10 remained unsure. Parents clearly supported instruction related to racism, though it remains unclear if those who oppose CRT are motivated by an informed disagreement with its teachings or by its hot-button political status. The same question about the root of parents’ opposition to CRT is being asked nationally.
Parents clearly supported instruction related to racism.
A whopping 92 percent of Missouri parents who identified as Democrats supported allowing schools to teach about institutional racism as did slightly more than half of parents who identified as Republicans and Independents. This signals bipartisan support in a prevailingly conservative state, which Joe Biden lost to Donald Trump in the last presidential election by more than 15 points. When it came to parents’ opinions about whether schools should be allowed to teach CRT, two-thirds of parents who identified as Democrats indicated support but only one-third of Independents and a mere 15 percent of Republicans.
Parallel to our parent survey, we posed identical questions to a representative sample of the state’s registered voters, because parents of school-age children represent only 1 in 5 of Missouri’s voters. With respect to support for allowing CRT instruction, half of voters disagreed, 37 percent agreed, and 12 percent were unsure. When asked about allowing teaching related to institutional racism, nearly half of voters agreed, 38 percent disagreed, and 14 percent were unsure.
These findings signal two important lessons for elected officials. First, support for allowing racism-focused instruction is significantly greater than opposition. Second, opposition to CRT among the public may well be motivated by misunderstanding about its components rather than authentic disagreement. Elected officials should pay particular attention to preferences voiced by parents of school-age children for whom education policy decisions have direct implications.
We believe the battle over CRT in K-12 schools is a prime example of a political distraction. Our legislature, like those in other states currently trying to ban CRT or curtail instruction about racism, has chosen to ignore parent sentiment, perhaps because parents represent a relatively small constituency. Elevating parent voices in this debate may sway portions of the general voting public to persuade legislators to represent their views rather than pursuing politically-driven renown.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Do Parents Want Schools To Be Able to Teach About Racism?