K-12 education is shaping up to be a key issue in the 2024 election cycle. Several prominent Republican leaders, including GOP presidential candidates, have sought to limit discussion of gender identity and race in schools, while the Biden administration has called for expanded protections for transgender students. The coronavirus pandemic also brought out partisan divides on many issues related to K-12 schools.
Today, the public is sharply divided along partisan lines on topics ranging from what should be taught in schools to how much influence parents should have over the curriculum. Here are eight charts that highlight partisan differences over K-12 education, based on recent surveys by Pew Research Center and external data.
Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to provide a snapshot of partisan divides in K-12 education in the run-up to the 2024 election. The analysis is based on data from various Center surveys and analyses conducted from 2021 to 2023, as well as survey data from Education Next, a research journal about education policy. Links to the methodology and questions for each survey or analysis can be found in the text of this analysis.
Most Democrats say K-12 schools are having a positive effect on the country, but a majority of Republicans say schools are having a negative effect, according to a Pew Research Center survey from October 2022. About seven-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (72%) said K-12 public schools were having a positive effect on the way things were going in the United States. About six-in-ten Republicans and GOP leaners (61%) said K-12 schools were having a negative effect.
About six-in-ten Democrats (62%) have a favorable opinion of the U.S. Department of Education, while a similar share of Republicans (65%) see it negatively, according to a March 2023 survey by the Center. Democrats and Republicans were more divided over the Department of Education than most of the other 15 federal departments and agencies the Center asked about.
In May 2023, after the survey was conducted, Republican lawmakers scrutinized the Department of Education’s priorities during a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing. The lawmakers pressed U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on topics including transgender students’ participation in sports and how race-related concepts are taught in schools, while Democratic lawmakers focused on school shootings.
Partisan opinions of K-12 principals have become more divided. In a December 2021 Center survey, about three-quarters of Democrats (76%) expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in K-12 principals to act in the best interests of the public. A much smaller share of Republicans (52%) said the same. And nearly half of Republicans (47%) had not too much or no confidence at all in principals, compared with about a quarter of Democrats (24%).
This divide grew between April 2020 and December 2021. While confidence in K-12 principals declined significantly among people in both parties during that span, it fell by 27 percentage points among Republicans, compared with an 11-point decline among Democrats.
Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say teachers’ unions are having a positive effect on schools. In a May 2022 survey by Education Next, 60% of Democrats said this, compared with 22% of Republicans. Meanwhile, 53% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats said that teachers’ unions were having a negative effect on schools. (In this survey, too, Democrats and Republicans include independents who lean toward each party.)
The 38-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on this question was the widest since Education Next first asked it in 2013. However, the gap has exceeded 30 points in four of the last five years for which data is available.
Republican and Democratic parents differ over how much influence they think governments, school boards and others should have on what K-12 schools teach. About half of Republican parents of K-12 students (52%) said in a fall 2022 Center survey that the federal government has too much influence on what their local public schools are teaching, compared with two-in-ten Democratic parents. Republican K-12 parents were also significantly more likely than their Democratic counterparts to say their state government (41% vs. 28%) and their local school board (30% vs. 17%) have too much influence.
On the other hand, more than four-in-ten Republican parents (44%) said parents themselves don’t have enough influence on what their local K-12 schools teach, compared with roughly a quarter of Democratic parents (23%). A larger share of Democratic parents – about a third (35%) – said teachers don’t have enough influence on what their local schools teach, compared with a quarter of Republican parents who held this view.
Republican and Democratic parents don’t agree on what their children should learn in school about certain topics. Take slavery, for example: While about nine-in-ten parents of K-12 students overall agreed in the fall 2022 survey that their children should learn about it in school, they differed by party over the specifics. About two-thirds of Republican K-12 parents said they would prefer that their children learn that slavery is part of American history but does not affect the position of Black people in American society today. On the other hand, 70% of Democratic parents said they would prefer for their children to learn that the legacy of slavery still affects the position of Black people in American society today.
Parents are also divided along partisan lines on the topics of gender identity, sex education and America’s position relative to other countries. Notably, 46% of Republican K-12 parents said their children should not learn about gender identity at all in school, compared with 28% of Democratic parents. Those shares were much larger than the shares of Republican and Democratic parents who said that their children should not learn about the other two topics in school.
Many Republican parents see a place for religion in public schools, whereas a majority of Democratic parents do not. About six-in-ten Republican parents of K-12 students (59%) said in the same survey that public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers, including 29% who said this should be the case even if prayers from other religions are not offered. In contrast, 63% of Democratic parents said that public school teachers should not be allowed to lead students in any type of prayers.
In June 2022, before the Center conducted the survey, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a football coach at a public high school who had prayed with players at midfield after games. More recently, Texas lawmakers introduced several bills in the 2023 legislative session that would expand the role of religion in K-12 public schools in the state. Those proposals included a bill that would require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in every classroom, a bill that would allow schools to replace guidance counselors with chaplains, and a bill that would allow districts to mandate time during the school day for staff and students to pray and study religious materials.
Mentions of diversity, social-emotional learning and related topics in school mission statements are more common in Democratic areas than in Republican areas. K-12 mission statements from public schools in areas where the majority of residents voted Democratic in the 2020 general election are at least twice as likely as those in Republican-voting areas to include the words “diversity,” “equity” or “inclusion,” according to an April 2023 Pew Research Center analysis.
Also, about a third of mission statements in Democratic-voting areas (34%) use the word “social,” compared with a quarter of those in Republican-voting areas, and a similar gap exists for the word “emotional.” Like diversity, equity and inclusion, social-emotional learning is a contentious issue between Democrats and Republicans, even though most K-12 parents think it’s important for their children’s schools to teach these skills. Supporters argue that social-emotional learning helps address mental health needs and student well-being, but some critics consider it emotional manipulation and want it banned.
In contrast, there are broad similarities in school mission statements outside of these hot-button topics. Similar shares of mission statements in Democratic and Republican areas mention students’ future readiness, parent and community involvement, and providing a safe and healthy educational environment for students.