- A new study, based on surveys of hundreds of high school principals, finds that partisan politics leads to more conflict at school.
- The problems are particularly acute at schools in purple communities, those whose voters are almost evenly split Republican-Democrat.
- High rates of principals in purple communities report a dramatic increase between 2018 and 2022 in parents or community members challenging LGBTQ+ student instruction and harassment.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that partisan politics has permeated education, nor that the past two years have seen a wave of legislation and protests targeting lessons and books about racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Until now, however, it has been difficult to understand how the phenomenon has affected what happens in school buildings.
A new study, based on a survey of nearly 700 nationally representative high school principals, helps fill in the picture. The culture wars have taken a huge toll on many schools, the study by University of California researchers shows, leading to rising rates of hostility and bullying among teenagers and adults alike.
According to the study, these trends contribute to and are enabled by the chilling effects of today’s hyper-politicized environment. And such conflict has become especially prevalent in so-called “purple communities,” the congressional districts where Donald Trump received between 45 percent and 54.9 percent of the vote in 2020.
“There’s something going on in purple communities,” said John Rogers, professor of education and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, who co-authored the study. “In many different cases, the level of conflict has risen dramatically — far more than in red and blue communities.”
Have Republicans taken over school boards? Key Education Recommendations from Semester 2022
School culture wars escalate in battleground districts
Nearly half of the principals who participated in this survey said there was “more” or “much more” community conflict during the 2021-22 school year than there had been before the pandemic.
Main sources of conflict: teaching and learning about race and racism, policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ students, children’s access to certain library books, and social-emotional learning. With each problem area, at least one-third of principals reported instances of parents or community members challenging or attempting to limit learning material or policy.
In the past year, the country has seen an explosion of fights over which books should be stocked in school libraries, with dozens of states and school boards choosing to ban the teaching of critical race theory or reverse policies that support LGBTQ+ students.
In problem areas, schools in purple communities saw more conflict than those in red and blue. Principals in these communities were, for example, nearly twice as likely (24%) to have dealt with multiple instances of individuals attempting to limit or challenge the rights of LGBTQ+ students. Nearly two out of three purple zone principals also reported at least one instance of individuals challenging instruction on issues of race and racism.
In addition, principals in purple communities were more likely to cite more instances of students making demeaning or hateful remarks toward peers with different political views or similar tensions that create contentious classroom environments. And the rate of principals in these communities reporting instances of students making hostile and demeaning remarks about LGBTQ+ students tripled between 2018 and 2022, from 10% to 32%.
“It’s hard not to see a relationship between the political climate and student interactions,” Rogers said.
2020 Election Results Maps:Most of America is purple
Trust, or the lack of it, has emerged as another major sticking point in purple districts. The rate of principals in these fields reporting multiple instances of a parent or community member disputing a teacher’s information or media source nearly tripled between 2018 and 2022, from 12 percent to 35 percent.
“In these politically contested communities, there’s been tremendous pressure on parents to challenge their schools, to see public institutions as suspect, and to raise these really difficult questions,” Rogers said.
“There’s so much heat on us right now from these parent groups that we’re treading carefully,” said one principal at a purple community in Ohio, who, like all study participants, was given a pseudonym . Some teachers at his school wondered if they could teach about the civil rights movement and Jim Crow without being accused of saying all whites were bad. Others thought about retirement.
“We’re trying to weather this storm and see if we can get through it,” the director said.
Little support for teachers, students who need it most
This year, principals in purple communities were significantly less likely than in 2018 to say their districts provide professional development for teaching sensitive subjects or their leaders made statements in support of equity and inclusion practices.
In blue communities, the rate of principals who say their school or district provided professional development in how to lead productive discussions on controversial issues increased from 45 percent in 2019 to 49 percent in 2022. But in red communities, it decreased from 40% to 27%. Purple communities saw the biggest drop, from 54% to 33%.
“These declines are particularly striking because they occur in places where the need is greatest,” said Joseph Kahne, a professor of education at UC Riverside who also co-authored the study.
At the same time principals in purple zones reported higher rates of harassment and conflict over differing viewpoints, their districts provide less training on how to discuss controversial issues. “That is really the adverse and frightening effect of this conflict,” he said.
A principal in a purple community in California said that in an ideal world, he would like his teachers to talk about politics and current events. “But unfortunately, my parents can’t handle it, so I indicated that it is not appropriate for them to teach these subjects in the classroom,” said the head of the researchers. “This is not me or my management team being afraid of conflict. We are taking a pragmatic approach so that our school can operate with as little disruption as possible and hopefully without violence.”
CRT prohibitions:How to bypass restrictions and teach honest US history
Substantial percentages of principals in communities of all political persuasions said that conflict is rare and that their students and teachers are encouraged to engage in difficult topics.
Still, UCLA’s Rogers predicts that the culture wars will continue to warp how many schools function, discouraging many from fostering the kinds of dialogue and critical thinking needed to prepare students for a healthy democracy.
Rogers pointed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is positioning himself for the Republican primaries in 2024. In a recent interview, Pompeo called Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the most dangerous person in the world.
Pompeo “sees it as a strategic advantage, leaning into the culturally divisive issues of public education,” Rogers said. “And that creates this tremendous vulnerability for educators and ultimately for students.”
The result of that political strategy, according to Rogers: teachers who are afraid to have important conversations about race and identity and current events with their students. And teachers, he said, “will be cautious about giving young people the kind of support and protection they need to feel safe and learn.”
But both Rogers and Kahne, citing their subsequent interviews with principals, said they were optimistic about students’ ability to demand teaching that challenges and includes rather than comforts and excludes.
“I think part of that virtuous circle has to necessarily involve young people coming forward,” Rogers said. “It has to be part of the community that says we want something different.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.