Americans Increasingly See Political Polarization Overtaking Public Education

School choice would help families escape classroom battles by leaving the battleground.


It's no secret that public schools are battlegrounds over classroom bias and policy preferences. The conflicts escalate as time goes on, hurting students and teachers alike. Many families have a solution: they want out, so they can guide their own kids' education without having to fight over ideology and procedures. But hardliners who favor government control are trying to prevent their exit. Those blocking school doors need to be pushed out of the way so children can learn.

"Partisan rifts widen, perceptions of school quality decline," reads the headline on the results of the latest survey of public opinion by Harvard University's Education Next. "Using Education Next survey data from 2007 to 2022, we reveal that the average difference in opinion between the two major parties has grown larger on many of the items we have tracked over the years. Second, we are witnessing the emergence of new issues that reflect exceptionally large partisan splits. Over the past two years, we have introduced questions about schools' responses to the pandemic and recent debates about how to teach about the role of race in America's past and present. In contrast to many of the education-policy topics that we have explored in prior iterations of the survey, respondents' positions on these issues appear to map more directly to their partisan identities."

"To say that the politics of education is increasingly partisan is not to say that it is exclusively partisan," authors David. M. Huston, Paul E. Peterson, and Martin R. West emphasize. But among the biggest splits are highly partisan divides over COVID-19 response and controversial interpretations of history.

"About 65 percent of Democrats support face mask mandates in schools, with 15 percent opposed. Among Republicans, the breakdown is essentially the reverse: 19 percent in support and 63 percent opposed," the report notes. "Fully 54 percent of Democrats think their local schools are placing too little emphasis on racial matters, compared to 10 percent of Republicans. Meanwhile, 51 percent of Republicans think there is currently too much emphasis on racial matters, compared to 9 percent of Democrats."

"Despite the education-policy community's long history of trying to keep political pressures at arm's length, public opinion on education issues seems to be increasingly drawn into the powerful current of partisanship in contemporary American politics," the authors add.

Unsurprisingly, a RAND study earlier this year found that COVID-19 response and "the intrusion of political issues and opinions" including the treatment of racial matters are major job-related stressors. "Educators who reported being harassed about politicized issues experienced lower levels of well-being and worse perceptions of their school or district climate; they were more likely to cite the politicization of their profession as a reason for considering leaving their jobs."

It's not a shock that intractable disagreements over what is to be taught and the conditions under which teaching occurs have many educators at the end of their ropes. So, wouldn't it make sense to stop shoehorning people with incompatible preferences into the same institutions and let them pick education approaches that work for their kids?

Hey! That's something on which people agree across the political spectrum.

Education Next's survey found that while Americans' perceptions of public schools have been slipping since 2019, "support for charter schools ticked back up to 45 percent after lows of 39 percent in 2017 and 41 percent in 2021. Similarly, support for both universal vouchers (50 percent) and vouchers for low-income families (48 percent) has recovered from its 2021 levels (45 percent and 43 percent, respectively). Meanwhile, scholarships for low-income families funded by tax credits, which had 55 percent support in 2017 and 56 percent support a year ago, now enjoy the backing of 61 percent of Americans. … Fifty-four percent of Americans favor allowing parents to homeschool their children, compared to 45 percent in 2017."

Every possible educational reform is gaining support while traditional public schools lose esteem. Many of these reforms make it clear that education funding is for students, not for government-run institutions. They ensure that money follows kids to their classes, wherever they are. For example, Arizona recently expanded education savings accounts (ESA) so families can choose how to use some of the taxes they pay.

"Families would receive over $6,500 per year per child for private school, homeschooling, 'learning pods,' tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that would best fit their students' needs," comments Arizona's Goldwater Institute, which advocated for passage. More money is available for children with special needs.

Nobody has to participate; Arizonans can keep their kids in traditional public schools without making any effort. Nevertheless, the program is popular.

"IMPORTANT! Due to high volume, you may receive an error message when trying to create an ADE Connect account. Please try again later," reads the Arizona Department of Education's Empowerment Scholarship Account application page as of August 21.

That escape hatch from a public school system for which people have diminishing respect and eroding patience may excite the public but is unacceptable to defenders of the old institutions.

"ESA vouchers take more money away from our already underfunded schools," complains Save Our Schools Arizona, which believes that education funds belong to government buildings and employees, not to the children seeking education and whose families pay taxes. The organization is funding a petition drive to overturn ESA expansion.

Maybe anti-choice activists just like conflict. If successful, they'll trap families that can't afford tuition on top of taxes in institutions they don't respect, that show every sign of continuing as political and cultural battlegrounds, and in which some teachers feel compelled by endless disagreements to quit. That guarantees a future of escalating disputes that interfere with learning and create unpleasant environments for everybody. To judge by their conduct, anti-choice activists are cruelly wedded to encouraging combat in the classroom.

That's why anti-choice activists need to lose, so children and families can win. In a country in which people increasingly disagree on a host of issues, government-controlled schools are destined to be battlefields so long as we try to force people with clashing views to share them. Rather than settle for partisan conflict and perceptions of declining quality, we can escape classroom battles by letting people leave the battleground.