It’s a Crisis! It’s Nonsense! How Political Are K–12 Classrooms?

Right-wingers insist schools are rife with politicking, left-wingers that this is nonsense. Who’s correct? We don’t know.


Amid K–12’s culture clashes, I’m constantly struck by how often we seem to be talking past one another. On this count, I observed a conversation last year that’s stuck with me ever since. It was late, on a D.C. sidewalk, after the bar had closed on the last stragglers from AEI’s K–12 Working Group.

The exchange took place between an influential education school professor and a leading parent activist. In response to a session earlier that day, they’d been arguing (heatedly, but respectfully) about anti-CRT laws. They were discussing the incidents relating to teacher politicking, of the sort that show up on Libs of TikTok. You know, teacher rants about how awful the Founding Fathers were or the necessity of having students pledge allegiance to the Pride flag.

The academic acknowledged such instances were problematic; his point was that the laws intended to combat the problems were far more worrisome than these occasional incidents. As we said our goodnights, it occurred to me to ask something that had never come up during their back-and-forth.

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“How common do you think these incidents actually are?” I asked.

“They’re rare,” the ed school professor said. “They should be addressed on a case-by-case basis when they happen, but these are outliers. We shouldn’t treat them as more than that.”

The parent activist looked incredulous. “They’re not rare. They’re happening all the time.”

The professor looked skeptical.

“We get a steady stream of parent complaints,” she said. “In most places, parents don’t have any good way to share this stuff. When they have someone who is listening, they reach out. Once they have a way to let you know, it’s remarkable how much there is.”

The professor was unimpressed. “If you cherry-pick across the country, you can find examples,” he said. “But there are 100,000 public schools. You can find 50 examples, and that’s not even one-tenth of 1 percent of those schools.”

“Given that,” I asked him, “What percent of classrooms do you think have one of these incidents in a given year?”

“Across the whole country?” he asked. “I mean, a tiny, tiny fraction.”

“Are we talking about 1 percent of classrooms?” I wondered.

“Nothing close to that,” he said. “It’s way, way under 1 percent.”

Now it was the advocate’s turn to roll her eyes.

“What do you think?” I asked her.

“Over the course of a year? It’s got to be over half,” she said.

“Of classrooms?” the professor asked in disbelief.

“Absolutely,” she said.

They looked at each other. None of us had any way of knowing the real figure, but the two of them were clearly confident they had it right—and that the other was in la-la land.

And that’s the heart of the issue. Most people are of two minds on all this. The vast majority of parents and voters want schools to promote tolerance and understanding but with no ideological agendas or political posturing. So they want schools to be honest about slavery and Jim Crow without resorting to “privilege” exercises which shame some students based on their race or ethnicity. They want schools to make all students feel safe, but not encourage first-grade teachers to lead class discussions about gender unicorns. This tension requires gut-checks and balancing acts.

For instance, over 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats say students should be taught about slavery in school, but more than 85 percent of both groups also think that “classrooms should be places for learning, not political battlegrounds.” EdChoice has found that, by a margin of 84 to 10, parents don’t want their kids’ teachers to share their personal politics. In theory, there’s no tension here—one can readily teach about Jim Crow without promoting an ideological agenda. But a lot of advocates, curriculum developers, and teacher trainers have made it clear that they think “honestly” teaching about slavery entails teaching politicized doctrines regarding “systemic racism” or intersectionality.

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How much of what ensues is problematic? We just don’t know. One survey of youths aged 18 to 20, for example, found that four out of five said they were taught at least one Critical Social Justice concept in school, including: “America is a systemically racist country,” “Discrimination is the main reason for differences in wealth or other outcomes between races or genders,” and “In America, white people have unconscious biases that negatively affect nonwhite people.” But we should be skeptical of this kind of nudge-aided recollection and, in any event, it’s not entirely clear just what it means to have been “taught” these things. Yet, even if this proportion is a massive overstatement, it certainly allows parent activists to argue their concerns are rooted in much more than outrageous anecdotes or viral videos.

The point is this: both camps can offer evidence to make their case. And, if the troubling stuff is vanishingly rare, it’s easy to appreciate why anti-CRT laws or a “parental bill of rights” might strike some as threatening or over-the-top—like a matter of censorious right-wingers seeking excuses to squash uncomfortable ideas. If dubious conduct is common, though, legislation looks a lot more like an appropriate, democratic response.

Here is a crucial opportunity for sufficiently intrepid and entrepreneurial researchers. I’ll grant that devising a research strategy out and obtaining access to schools for this kind of inquiry would be extraordinarily challenging, and funding and conducting it even more so. Absent such investigation, though, it’s a safe bet that the debate will roar dumbly on, with all parties confident they’re in the right.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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