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In a polarized nation, can public schools work for all children?

Value-neutral education is a myth, critics say. The 2023 American Family Survey shows areas of broad agreement on what to teach kids — but also deep divides.

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In a divided nation, do Americans agree on what should be taught in classrooms?

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This story is based on data from the 2023 American Family Survey.

Many Americans find common ground on what they want children to learn in public schools — but there are deep divides as well, according to a new nationwide survey. The areas of division give rise to the question: Do Americans share national values they want taught in the classroom?

Max Eden, a research fellow at American Enterprise Institute, says he worries we’ve grown too far apart to reach consensus on what children should be taught.

When asked whether he thinks Americans can reach an agreement on what should be taught in public schools, Eden said the 2023 American Family Survey, released Tuesday at AEI in Washington, D.C., made him think we can’t.

“This survey is, unfortunately, providing pretty suggestive evidence that the answer might increasingly be no,” he said.

He pointed to the findings on what books children in K-12 schools should be allowed to read. Eden said before looking at the results of the survey, he believed there was broad agreement over keeping books with sexually explicit content out of K-12 schools.

“Except it turns out that’s not actually something that we agree on quite as much as I would have expected,” he said.

The survey showed a strong majority of Republicans, 62%, say books with sexually explicit scenes or sexual content should never be required reading for high school students, while 28% of Democrats say the same.

“I had thought that was one of the kinds of things that both sides could fully agree on,” he said.

The partisan divide was also deep on whether gender identity should be taught in schools. The survey showed Democrats were much more likely to say schools should spend more time talking about sexual orientation and gender identity, and almost half of all Democrats want gender identity to be part of sex education curriculum, while only 9% of Republicans agreed. Among independents, 23% said they want gender identity to be included.

“At least one-half of American parents thinks this is a concept that was invented 10 to 15 years ago that is being propagandized to our children, and it’s false and destructive and has no place in schools,” said Eden. “And the other side thinks this is a natural part of human existence that was previously hidden from us and stigmatized and is now being allowed to flourish.”

“That’s not really a divide that can be put back into the box. It’s a really fundamental divide on the nature of man,” he said.

Common ground on school curriculum: Teach practical life skills

Despite the clear divide on some issues, the survey also revealed what Americans agree kids should learn in schools, said Jeremy C. Pope, study co-investigator and report co-author, alongside Christopher F. Karpowitz. Both are Brigham Young University political science professors.

The survey was conducted by YouGov for BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, the Wheatley Institute at BYU and Deseret News. It has an error margin of 2.1 percentage points and was fielded Aug. 3-15.

The biggest area of agreement was on prioritizing teaching about practical life skills, with 70% of Americans choosing this option. Over 50% also said students should learn more about history, writing and government.

Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say schools should spend more time on racial issues, sexual orientation and gender identity, and social and emotional learning. Republicans, meanwhile, were more likely to say schools should spend more time on math and science.

On sex education, one of the thorniest subjects in school, there were also areas of agreement on what should be included, said Pope.

“People want sex education to be about necessary things like hygiene, the basics of how does sex work, what is human anatomy. ... When you get to contraception, Democrats are in favor of (teaching) it. Republicans are up at like 47%. So maybe consensus is too strong a word, but in those early categories, there’s just a lot of agreement,” he said.  

The areas where Americans don’t agree? Again, teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity was much less popular among Republicans and independents than Democrats, who were also more likely to say they want kids to learn about consent.

Teaching about race and racism is also a point of conflict — with 3 out of 4 Democrats saying public schools should “actively teach students to reject racism or include students of different races, compared to just over half of Republicans,” the study says. While 2 out of 3 Republicans say “questions of race and racial identity should be left to parents, not taught at school.”

“Although again,” said Pope, “it’s probably worth pointing out the majority of Republicans do want those issues taught. I think what they worry about is the possibility of bias, that you are going to get a teacher who isn’t just explaining what happened, but is explaining a very narrow view of it.”

The survey showed Democrats are almost as worried about bias in public education as Republicans, which Pope said surprised him.

Overall, 67% of Americans said they were somewhat or very worried about how this content might be taught in their local schools, with 83% of Republicans and 59% of Democrats choosing these options. On sex education, 70% of Republicans and 56% of Democrats said the same, while the overall number was 61%.

“I thought we were going to see a persistent pattern of Republicans saying there was a lot more bias than Democrats did,” said Pope. “And we see that a little bit, but we see it less than I thought we were going to see it — and we see a lot more Democrats saying that there’s bias in the public school system that goes against their wishes.” 

What should children read?

One of the most divisive issues in schools is what children should read. As Eden pointed out, there were deep divides among Democrats and Republicans on whether students should be required to read books or other materials that contain sexual content, or LGBTQ+ content, with Republicans much more likely to say they shouldn’t.

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On what books should be available in public schools, the study says, “Partisans generally agreed about books regarding patriotism, sci-fi and fantasy themes, the nation’s history of race and racism, and women’s rights and feminism. The largest gulf in perspectives emerged for issues often associated with the culture wars: the role of vulgarity and violence, sexual content and LGBTQ+ concerns. On these issues, the partisan gaps are dramatic — in the case of gender identity, for example, nearly 50 percentage points. Republicans are simply much more likely than Democrats to prefer eliminating these themes from the school curriculum or school library holdings.”

Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say religious scriptures should be available in public schools.

On who should decide what books stay and what books go, a majority of Americans across parties say school administrators and teachers should have the final say, but conservative Republicans said parents.

Eden said given the stark divide on what should be taught in public schools, he isn’t surprised to see the “dramatic” expansion of universal education savings accounts, which are state-funded accounts parents can use to pay for private schools. Utah adopted ESAs in its 2023 legislative session under the Utah Fits All Scholarship program.

“You will see some instances, in states like Florida, where the state fully comes down and says, ‘no, our schools will not be taking this side of these cultural debates, we’ll be taking that side,” he said.

“But what you’ll see more often than that are state legislatures who just say, ‘Well, if you don’t want to send your kid to a school that takes sides on these cultural debates then you can take this money and you can send your kid to a private school.’ ... And I think that’s why we’ve gone from zero to basically 10 states with universal public school choice in the past year. It’s precisely downstream of this realization of, what do we do with this stark values divide that has appeared?”