“14 books to be removed from Spotsylvania County school libraries.”
– Fredericksburg Free Lance Star
“Isle of Wight County Schools ban teaching on ‘systemic racism.’”
– Smithfield Times
“Madison County removes 22 books from high school library.”
– Madison County Eagle
For those struggling to understand why this is happening, here’s all you really need to know: All three of those are very Republican counties and Republicans overwhelmingly believe that parents — not school boards, not the state and certainly not the federal government — should be the ones making decisions about what is taught in school.
By contrast, Democrats believe that teachers should have more say about what’s taught than they presently do.
That’s the essence of our current cultural battles over schools: Democrats would give primacy to teachers, Republicans would give it to parents, and those Republican parents, not surprisingly, tend to be more conservative in their views over what’s appropriate for kids to read. The latest numbers backing this come from a recent survey by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University. For now, this may be the only place you’ll read about this poll, and I should explain why.
For the editor of a news site covering Southwest and Southside, I’ve been spending an unusual amount of time in Newport News. CNU invited me to be one of three “Distinguished Virginians” — their term, not mine. Along with former Gov. Bob McDonnell and Christy Coleman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, I’ve made periodic trips to CNU to meet with students in the Wason Center’s leadership programs. I’m not sure who learned more, them or me. The Wason Center is best known for its periodic public opinion polls on Virginia politics. My final session at CNU involved me, presumably the grizzled veteran journalist, quizzing the students about the results of one of those polls to show them the kinds of questions that they might encounter. The poll in question was one that CNU hadn’t planned to release; it was intended simply as a student exercise, but I was fascinated by the results and so the center agreed to let me report the data. So here goes.
About the CNU poll
The poll surveyed 1,175 Virginians between Feb. 5 and March 2. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5%.
The partisan divide on schools begins to show up with a simple question: “In general, how satisfied are you with the amount of input that you have with what your child learns in school?”
Thirty-eight percent of Democrats said they were very satisfied, but only 25% of Republicans felt that way.
Thirty-nine percent of Republicans said they were either “not very satisfied” or “not at all satisfied,” while only 22% of Democrats felt that way.
Generally speaking, Republicans want more input, Democrats are fine with the way things are. In fact, 76% of Democrats were either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied,” while only 60% of Republicans were. Everything that follows seems to flow from that. (The Democratic point of view might be summed up with this recent headline in Salon: “Republicans want the dumbest parent at the school to control the curriculum.” I suspect Republicans would frame it as they don’t want their kids exposed to things they don’t think they’re ready for.)
So who should have input into what’s taught? Those surveyed were asked a series of questions about that.
Local school boards: 37% of Republicans said local school boards had too much input; that was the most common Republican answer. By contrast, only 21% of Democrats said local school boards had too much input. Instead, the common Democratic answer — given by 44% of those identifying as Democrats — was that the amount of input from local school boards was “about right.” Independents fell somewhere in between the two parties, although the most common response from independents — given by 33% of them — was that the amount of input from local school boards is “about right.”
State government: The answers here are curious because both parties agree: 36% of Republicans said the state government had too much input, so did 40% of Democrats and 38% of independents. That was the most common answer by each group. While the difference is within the margin of error, the specific numbers suggest that more Democrats may feel there’s too much state input than Republicans do. I wonder if Democrats are responding that way because there’s now a Republican governor whose administration is in charge of new history standards? If we had a Democratic governor, would we see the same answers? Maybe Democrats are reacting to Youngkin while Republicans are giving a more general reaction to government, period? The data doesn’t say; that’s just my interpretation.
Federal government: These answers are more predictable: 58% of Republicans say the feds have too much say in schools, 42% of Democrats say the federal role is about right. That’s far and away the most common answer by both groups. Interestingly, independents are more in line with Republicans here: 45% say the federal government has too much input into local schools. If Democrats wonder why education isn’t always a winning argument for them at the federal level, this is why.
Teachers: Here’s where we see the ideological divide open up in another way: 57% of Democrats say teachers don’t have enough say. Republicans are a lot less excited about teachers: 38% say teachers don’t have enough input; that’s the most common GOP response, but it’s obviously a lot lower than the Democratic answers. Meanwhile, 22% of Republicans say teachers have too much input; only 2% of Democrats believe that. This is why Democrats are a lot more likely to say “let teachers teach” than Republicans are. Independents are in between: 49% say teachers don’t have enough say.
Principals: The most common answer from both parties, and independents, was that principals have about the right amount of input into what’s taught but Democrats felt that more strongly than Republicans: 44% of Democrats answered that way while only 33% of Republicans did. (Independents, again, were in the middle, with 38%.) But a chunk of Republicans are distrustful of the education establishment, whatever form it takes: 19% of Republicans say principals have too much input, only 7% of Democrats do.
Students: The most common answer from both parties, and independents, was that students don’t have enough input. However, Democratic enthusiasm for student input is higher than Republicans: 44% of Democrats say students don’t have enough input, 34% of Republicans say that. And Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say students have too much input: 17% of Republicans say that, only 6% of Democrats do. I don’t doubt that these are an accurate reflection of the poll results, but I do doubt whether people really believe their own answers here. My thought experiment: Would a candidate be able to win running on a platform of giving students more say in what they’re taught? I suspect not. If that had been the case in my day, I’d have voted out all those math classes that I now find so useful, many years later.
Parents: Here’s where we see our biggest, and most telling, divide: the role of parents. Some 70% of Republicans say parents don’t have enough input, only 6% say they have too much. By contrast, 36% of Democrats say that the level of parental input is about right while 25% say parents have too much input. Only 24% of Democrats say parents don’t have enough input. Independents are in the middle but there’s obviously a lot of ground between the 70% Republican answer and the 24% Democrat answer — independents come in at 46% saying parents don’t have enough input. That’s why Terry McAuliffe’s debate line in 2021 — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” — was so deadly to his campaign. Democrats may believe that, but Republicans sure don’t, so that only fired up Republicans even more so for Youngkin. Plus, it’s not what independents believe, so that comment helped lose them, too. This is why the parental rights argument is such a potent one for Republicans: It galvanizes their base and attracts independents, too. Republicans will likely keep using this until either a) Democrats figure out a response that counters it or b) the issue loses its relevance and voters are no longer moved by it. So far neither has happened.
In that infamous debate during the gubernatorial campaign, McAuliffe declared: “I’m not going to let parents come into schools, and actually take books out, and make their own decision.” Republicans, though, do believe they should be able to — maybe not literally but certainly figuratively. Those school boards in Republican counties that are taking books off the shelves are doing that because they have a very different set of values than the Democrats who say “let teachers teach.” You can agree or disagree with whichever side you wish, but these are the numbers that show why this is happening.
Tomorrow I’ll look at some other things this poll revealed.
Keep up with our political coverage by signing up for our free daily email newsletter and our new weekly political newsletter, West of the Capital.