State of the Union and Polarization in Education

“Our schools are open,” said the President of the United States. “Let’s keep it that way. Our children must be in school.

Why Joe Biden felt the need to utter those three short sentences in an hour-long State of the Union address to Congress speaks to the enduring importance of education to American life. His words also respond to the blows that public schools have faced both from the prolonged pandemic and the ongoing political polarization.

As a president prepares a State of the Union message, as required by the Constitution, pollsters typically seize the opportunity to gauge the state of public opinion. In the days leading up to Biden’s speech, the results of several polls shed light on the complex atmosphere in which public schools operate in 2022.

Education ranked fourth – behind strengthening the economy, lowering healthcare costs and fighting COVID-19 – in the Pew Research Center January List major public priorities. In a test Pulling together results from multiple surveys, the Pew Center reported that “only about one in five adults (22%) said the quality of K-12 education in public schools was a major problem in their local community, unchanged from 2018.”

And yet, this Pew essay delivered troubling conclusions about a growing partisan divide over schools. Pew, an independent, nonpartisan research organization, reported that “amid high-profile debates over a range of K-12 school policies — from mask mandates to teaching race-related issues — a dwindling share of Republicans in the US say they trust public school principals to act in the public’s best interest.

Certainly, Pew has not sought to target principals, most of whom remain widely respected in their communities and who enforce policies established by superintendents and school boards. The results come from a recent survey designed to measure the level of public trust in the leaders and practitioners of critical societal institutions. Pew asked about medical scientists, police officers, journalists, business and religious leaders, and public school principals.

A simple majority (52%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in K-12 public school principals to act in the public interest, versus 79% two years ago. Today, almost a majority (47%) say they have little or no confidence in school principals. In contrast, 76% of Democrats and Democrats express a great deal or somewhat of a great deal of confidence in directors, up from 87% two years ago.

“In March 2020, when the coronavirus epidemic first hit the United States, the vast majority of Republicans (85%) and Democrats (94%) said the closure of K-12 schools was a necessary step,” Pew said. “But as the pandemic continues, partisan disagreements over school closures have become more acute.”

Loud protests in state capitols and local school boards have certainly had an influence on politics and politics, although they do not represent the totality of public opinion. “In a survey last January – when the omicron variant was spreading rapidly and some schools were closing again,” Pew said, “Republican K-12 parents were significantly more likely than Democratic parents (55% vs. 26%) to favor schools with in-person instruction only . Democratic parents were more likely than Republicans (64% vs. 39%) to favor a mix of in-person and online instruction.

The split in public opinion on education issues is one aspect of the broader “severe partisan polarization on the issues” explored in the 2022 Hoover Poll, as reported in RealClearPolitics, an online news site. The research has its base at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University.

Partisan differences, the report says, “manifest themselves in differential support for American institutions. Majorities of Democrats support universities, unions, the media, the United Nations, public schools, local governments and the judiciary. Republican majorities support the police, churches, and organized religion, with pluralities having faith in state and local government. There was cross-partisan agreement that neither business nor Congress inspired much confidence.

Amid their overall finding of severe bias, the Hoover researchers made an intriguing observation: “It seems that many Americans have friends in the other party and don’t feel like they can’t say what’s going on.” they think… 71% of Democrats have Republican friends. say they discuss politics, and 67% of Republicans with Democratic friends say they discuss politics.

No doubt President Biden would welcome such a discovery. As the nation’s top civil servant, the president persists in articulating a “unity agenda” and defining Americans as “one people.”

As a political leader, the Democratic president must face the reality of polarization and attempt to persuade a narrow band of persuasive voters. By proclaiming that “our children need to be in school,” Biden seeks a safer footing to engage in the turbulent education politics that will play out in the election years of 2022 and 2024.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is Director of the Public Life Program and Professor of Practice at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and Vice President of EducationNC.

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