Classrooms have reemerged as sites of political conflict over discussions about identity — and these tensions are reflected in how public school districts frame their educational values to students, according to an analysis released this week by the Pew Research Center.
Pew found that in Democratic-voting areas, 56% of districts note their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in their mission statements. Conversely, only 26% of districts in Republican-voting areas mention such efforts.
The study arrives as lawmakers in GOP-controlled states such as Texas and Florida continue to challenge classroom instruction about race and diversity.
Districts in blue areas use somewhat different language when they talk about these themes. Among the statements referencing the topic of diversity, statements from Democratic-voting areas are much more likely than those from Republican-voting areas to mention terms such as “equity” (51% vs. 25%), “inclusivity” (33% vs. 20%), and “closing [the achievement] gap” (11% vs. 3%).
Given the controversy on the political right around discussing diversity, the differences the analysis highlights aren’t too surprising. But the magnitude of these differences is remarkable, said Aaron Smith, the director of Pew’s Data Labs, the team that produced the new study.
“We didn’t see many differences on some of the other topics we examined. If you look at blue and red districts, in many ways, they look very, very similar. They’re equally likely to say that it’s important to have parental and community involvement in students’ education, for example,” he explained. “And yet, we see this enormous, 30-point gap in terms of districts’ tendency to mention issues around diversity and inclusion.”
Why the gap? Smith cautioned against over-generalizing. After all, the creation processes for the statements varied considerably — a top-down approach versus an approach that included lots of community input.
Still, he said that one thing that comes through in some of the public opinion work his colleagues have done is the fact that Democratic and Republican parents have dueling views on what sorts of subjects ought to be discussed in schools.
“So, in a certain sense, these differences are at least somewhat reflective of the values or priorities of parents,” Smith said. “Whether that’s actually driving any of those differences is something I can’t really say, based on the way we did this study. But it certainly is indicative of a set of political views and values that run deeper than just the school level or the government level.”
In short, some topics — students should be prepared to go out into the world, students should be safe while they’re at school — cause little confrontation. Others — race, gender — are fiercely contested.
Yet having a school environment that actively embraces diversity matters.
Marvin Lynn, a former elementary school teacher in Chicago Public Schools and New York City Public Schools and currently the dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver, explained that culturally responsive instruction has a very positive impact on the learning of students of color — particularly Black students.
“For districts to turn away from these ideas for political reasons is, I think, to turn away from our students,” he said. “It’s a negation of our history as a diverse country with a lot of significant challenges relating to issues of slavery and conquest and so on.”
Some states, such as Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged war on critical race theory and AP African American Studies, are pretending via political mandate that this history simply doesn’t exist, Lynn added. As a result, they’re ignoring students of color and elevating white students.
“This [maneuvering] is a way to protect the emotions of white students and parents and at the same time completely disregard the history and life experiences of others,” he said. “I see this as divisive — and, ultimately, ruinous for the academic achievement of students of color.”
The data collection for Pew’s analysis was conducted in November 2022 and based on more than 1,300 statements that are publicly available on district websites.