‘Hyper-Partisanship’ Is Making It A Lot Harder To Run Public Schools, New UC Research Finds
In a politically divided California community, a parent called the high school to complain about identity-affirming services for LGBTQ+ students, spitting homophobic remarks at the counselor over the phone.
In a liberal Wisconsin town, another principal felt students were increasingly “edgy about social and political issues” — and increasingly uncivil toward each other.
And in a conservative corner of Minnesota, a superintendent warned a principal not to bring up race or racism with teachers or students: “This is not the time or the place … Remember you are in the heart of Trump country.”
Academics at UCLA and UC Riverside collected these anecdotes as part of a survey of 682 high school principals across the U.S. In a report on their findings Wednesday, the researchers included these mini-stories to illustrate their broader point:
“Hyper-partisanship” and political polarization has made it a lot harder to run a school.
A Growing Problem In Political Battlegrounds
Almost half of the principals in the survey reported that “the amount of community level conflict” over hot-button issues was “more” or “much more” during the 2021-22 school year than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly seven in 10 principals in the nationally representative sample reported that students had made “demeaning or hateful remarks toward classmates for expressing either liberal or conservative views.”
In schools serving “purple” communities — Congressional districts where Donald Trump received between 45% and 55% of the 2020 presidential vote — partisanship was an even bigger problem for schools: More than 80% of principals reported “demeaning or hateful” clashes over politics among students.
Perhaps it’s not too big a surprise that purple districts, where opinions are by definition more divided, would see more political conflict — except UCLA professor John Rogers noted that when the same researchers ran a similar survey in 2018, they found principals in purple communities were less likely to say polarization was a problem.
“For me, that’s reflective of the ways that hyper-partisanship has increasingly targeted purple communities, but also the ways in which schools themselves have become the targets in purple communities,” said Rogers, who directs UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, and co-authored the survey with UC Riverside’s Joseph Kahne.
Rogers noted how Republicans and conservative activist groups have attempted to make political gains by stirring conflicts over COVID-19 policies, gender and sexuality issues, and whether “Critical Race Theory” — the examination of how racism shapes laws and policies — has a place in schools. (We’ve reported on this debate as it played out in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified school board election.)
Rogers pointed to quotes from conservative activist Steve Bannon: “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards,” he has said, according to Politico. Bannon has also argued the backlash isn’t connected to conspiracy theories or even to devoted right-wingers: “This is mainstream suburban moms — and a lot of these people aren’t Trump voters.”
Our starting point needs to be that all young people feel like they are members of the school community and that they will be treated with dignity.
How Increasing Conflict Has Changed Schools
Rogers said his survey shows how this activism has affected schools in recent years.
- The rate at which parents have “challenged the information or media sources used by teachers” doubled in the last four years — with even bigger increases in politically divided communities. In 2018, 12% of principals in purple communities reported conflicts with parents over curriculum; in 2022, that figure had risen to 35%.
- Over the last four years, the survey results suggest that schools in purple or red communities had abandoned professional development on how to teach students “about the literature and history of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.” In 2018, 60% of principals in conservative areas reported this training was available; in 2022, just 33% of principals said it was.
- Fewer principals reported that their school or district offered training on “how to conduct productive discussions of controversial issues.”
- Principals said that LGBTQ+ students, especially in purple communities, are less likely to feel welcome in their schools. Four years ago, just 10% of principals in purple areas reported “hostile and demeaning remarks about LGBTQ+ students”; this year, 32% of principals reported this hostility — a higher rate than in either conservative or liberal communities.
These findings echo the results of a similar survey from USC, which found that a majority of Americans are uncomfortable assigning high school students to read books featuring same-sex couples or LGBTQ experiences. One-quarter of respondents in that USC survey reported being uncomfortable assigning readings on the experiences of non-white people, low-income people or racial inequality.
Rogers acknowledged that some debates about how schools address race, class, gender and sexuality in school are legitimately complex, and that people of good will can disagree about how to resolve them. But the increase in conflict — and growing hostility between students with different political views, gender identities, or sexual orientations — is a troubling sign.
“We can’t promote quality education,” the professor said, “unless all young people feel like they belong and are treated with dignity. Once we’ve established that, we can have other conversations about ‘What should we read?' and ‘To what extent should we raise issues of inequality and oppression with 4-5 year olds?'”
“There are really difficult questions …,” Rogers continued, “but our starting point needs to be that all young people feel like they are members of the school community and that they will be treated with dignity and that they will be safe in the public school.”