Amid high-profile debates over a range of K-12 school policies – from mask mandates to the teaching of race-related issues – a declining share of Republicans in the United States say they are confident in public school principals to act in the best interests of the public.
Around half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (52%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in K-12 public school principals to act in the public’s best interests, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in December 2021. Nearly as many (47%) say they have not too much or no confidence at all in principals.
In April 2020, shortly after the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Republicans’ attitudes about public school principals were much more positive. At the time, around eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) said they had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in principals to act in the best interests of the public, while 20% said they had not too much or no confidence.
This Pew Research Center analysis examines changing public attitudes about K-12 principals in the United States. It is based primarily on a survey of 14,497 U.S. adults conducted from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, 2021. Everyone who took part in the survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
Other parts of this analysis are based on additional surveys by Pew Research Center and The Washington Post/ABC News. Links to these surveys – including their field dates, sample sizes and methodologies – are included in the text of the post.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have also become less likely to express confidence in school principals during the pandemic, but the drop-off has not been nearly as steep as among Republicans – and a large majority of Democrats still voice confidence. As of December 2021, around three-quarters of Democrats (76%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in principals, down from 87% in April 2020.
Overall, 64% of U.S. adults say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in K-12 principals to act in the best interests of the public, down from 83% in April 2020. Public confidence in a number of other societal groups and institutions has also waned during the pandemic, with especially notable decreases among Republicans.
GOP criticism of public schools is not limited to principals, a July 2021 Center survey found. In that survey, a majority of Republicans (57%) said K-12 public schools overall were having a negative effect on the way things were going in the country. Around three-quarters of Democrats (77%) said K-12 schools were having a positive effect. That survey, too, found growing GOP negativity about a range of societal institutions, including banks and financial institutions, large corporations, tech companies and labor unions.
So what’s driving the growing partisan polarization around K-12 schools? Surveys by the Center and other polling organizations indicate that pandemic-related changes to school policies, as well as recent debates over school curriculums, may be playing a role.
In March 2020, when the coronavirus outbreak first struck the U.S., the vast majority of Republicans (85%) and Democrats (94%) said closing K-12 schools was a necessary step. But as the pandemic has continued, partisan disagreements about school closures have become more pointed.
In a survey this past January – when the omicron variant was spreading rapidly and some schools were again closing their doors – Republican K-12 parents were much more likely than Democratic parents (55% vs. 26%) to favor schools providing in-person only instruction. Democratic parents were more likely than Republican ones (64% vs. 39%) to favor a mix of in-person and online instruction.
In the same survey, Republican and Democratic parents also differed over the factors that should be given a lot of consideration when deciding whether to keep K-12 schools open for in-person instruction. GOP parents were more likely than Democratic parents to say a lot of consideration should be given to students’ academic progress and their emotional well-being, while Democratic parents were more likely than Republicans to say a lot of consideration should be given to the risks that the coronavirus posed to students and teachers.
Mask mandates have also been a flashpoint in some school districts. While Pew Research Center has not recently polled about mask mandates in schools, there have long been wide partisan divides in views of masking more generally. This past January, Republicans were 40 percentage points less likely than Democrats (39% vs. 79%) to say they had worn a mask or face covering in stores and other businesses all or most of the time in the prior month.
Debates over school curriculums may be having an effect on Republicans’ satisfaction with public schools as well.
In a Washington Post/ABC News survey in November 2021, seven-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents – compared with around a quarter of Democrats and Democratic leaners (26%) – said parents should have a lot of say in what their child’s school teaches. Democrats were about twice as likely as Republicans (45% vs. 21%) to say parents should have some say in what their child’s school teaches.
While partisan differences over K-12 schools may have grown wider during the pandemic, Republicans and Democrats had disagreements over some aspects of public schooling well before the pandemic. In a May 2019 survey by the Center, Republicans were less likely than Democrats to say K-12 schools were open to a wide range of opinions and viewpoints. Around half of Republicans (49%) said K-12 schools were very or somewhat open in this regard, compared with around seven-in-ten Democrats (71%).
Other survey questions related to K-12 schools have found no change in attitudes during the pandemic. In an October 2021 Center survey, only around one-in-five adults (22%) said the quality of K-12 education in the public schools was a major problem in their local community, unchanged from 2018. In that survey, Republicans were slightly less likely than Democrats (19% vs. 23%) to say the quality of K-12 education was a major problem where they live.