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Americans’ Surprising Agreement on Teaching Race in the Classroom

The partisans make a lot of noise because it drives voters. But solid majorities have reasonable views about how and what we should teach kids about our history and the need for equality of opportunity.

As we ramp up into midterm elections season, the uproar surrounding critical race theory (CRT) will only get louder. Republicans who are convinced that the issue put Glenn Youngkin over the line in last year’s unexpected GOP gubernatorial win in Virginia will look to gain favor with parents’ increasing concerns about what is taught in public schools. Democrats, meanwhile, will use CRT to try to convince voters that their opponents are racist and favor extreme censorship.

Both parties are eager to jump into the fray because across the ideological spectrum voters have concerns about public schools — and those fears can and will drive voters to the polls. Apprehension regarding school curriculums existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but as millions of students were sent home for virtual schooling, parents got a closer look at what their children were learning. Many did not approve of the lessons they saw regarding race and equality in America.

Specifically, a recent SPN State Voices poll shows that just one in 10 Americans believe schools have the right approach to teaching race and equity. Agreement is similar between Republicans and Democrats.

Partisans certainly do have their differences of opinions regarding content. There are 20- and 30-point differences between Democrats and Republicans on how certain race- and equity-related topics should enter the classroom, such as whether all white people bear responsibility for racism (38 percent of Democrats agree with that, versus 12 percent of Republicans) and whether or not America is fundamentally built on racism (46 percent of Democrats versus 10 percent of Republicans).

But overall, a majority of Americans have reasonable views on how race and equality should be incorporated into K-12 education, including the concept that we need to take a hard look at how we do it and make changes. Majorities of Americans believe it is inappropriate to teach that America was built on racism, that America’s defining cultural feature is racism and that all white people play a part in furthering systemic racism. Three in five, however, believe we need to teach children that racism is a part of America’s history — but also say it’s unfair to give better opportunities to racial minorities today because of past discrimination.

In addition, an overwhelming number of voters (80 percent-plus) of both parties believe in teaching children that race should not be a factor for selecting someone for a job, housing or other opportunity. A similar number believe that the idea that America should provide equality of opportunity, not outcome, belongs in public schools.

CRT is the latest divisive issue politicians, the media and pundits are using to fuel anger, clicks and campaign donations. However, the fury lies in misunderstanding that most Americans agree on the fundamentals and core principles of how race and equity should be taught in the classroom. Working to pass popular education transparency laws, instead of politically charged curriculum bans and requirements, would go a long way to starting the discussion in communities of what should be handled in the classroom and what should be left for families to teach. It would also help communities build bridges across party lines that politicians are desperate to deepen and exploit. And recent polling tells us that those communities are likely to settle on a compromise far from the fear-mongering happening on both sides of the national debate.

Those who are sincerely concerned that public schools are failing when it comes to teaching our children about race and equality in America have a choice: They can join the partisans yelling at each other, or they can get engaged in their local school system to understand what is really happening and advocate for the kind of change that enjoys wide support across the political spectrum.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Erin Norman is the Lee Family Fellow and senior messaging strategist at the State Policy Network.
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