Controversy and Consensus: Perspectives on Race, Religion, and COVID-19 in Public Schools

September 22, 2021 | Daniel A. Cox, Nat Malkus

Students back at school this fall face a great deal of uncertainty about what this school year will bring. As pediatric COVID-19 cases continue to rise, parents, teachers, and community leaders will be forced to adjust to new realities on the ground. But for now, a new survey reveals a surprising consensus on the approach schools should take to mitigate transmission of the virus. Most Americans are in favor of requiring all students and school personnel to wear masks during the school day—even those who are already fully vaccinated. Americans are also largely in favor of COVID-19 vaccine requirements for eligible students and school staff. Despite this public consensus, a vocal minority still expresses strident opposition to mask mandates and mandatory vaccinations.

The August 2021 American Perspectives Survey of 2,625 American adults, including an oversample of 610 parents with children under age 18, finds important differences between parents of school-age children and those without. Parents overwhelmingly favor a return to in-person learning for their children, even if they still harbor concerns about their children getting infected. Americans without school-age children are far less enthusiastic about local children going back to school in person and express greater concerns about community transmission.

Americans also agree that politicians should stay out of local education decisions, which most believe should be left up to teachers and parents. But when deciding what subjects students should learn and how they are taught, Republicans and Democrats have somewhat different perspectives. Democrats are far more willing to defer to teachers, while Republicans want a much larger role for parents in education decisions.

At a time of rapid cultural change, Americans continue to debate what students should learn about race, sex, and religion—topics that frequently invite controversy. But the survey reveals a startling level of agreement among the public on many of these same subjects, such as whether students can learn about the Bible, take a class on other world religions, and join an atheist school club. Americans support schools recognizing and celebrating religious holidays, whether it is Christmas, Hannukah, or Ramadan. The public also broadly supports students learning about America’s complicated racial legacy—that the founders owned slaves, the federal government interned Japanese Americans during World War II, Native Americans were mistreated at the hands of the federal government, and the Civil War was fought primarily over the issue of slavery.

Existing tensions are still evident on more politically charged recent controversies. There is marked disagreement about whether schools should display a Black Lives Matter banner or a pride flag or whether students should learn about the concept of “White privilege.”

Back to School COVID-19 Experiences

Even amid rising caseloads this summer, parents strongly supported children returning to school in the fall. However, despite these strong preferences for in-person instruction, many parents still worry about their child contracting COVID-19. To this end, Americans broadly support efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms. Even before the September spike in pediatric COVID-19 cases, Americans expressed support for various measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Most Americans favor mask mandates for all students and school staff and support COVID-19 vaccination requirements for eligible students.

School Reopening Plans for This Fall

The majority of Americans support children returning to full-time in-person school this fall, but that support is much higher among those who have school-age children. Seventy-two percent of parents of school-age children[1] want in-person schooling for their children compared to about half (52 percent) of nonparents who favor in-person classes for the children in their community. Americans without school-age children favor a mix of part-time in-person and part-time distance learning (i.e., “hybrid” schooling) at over twice the rate of parents of school-age children (36 percent vs. 17 percent). About only one in 10 parents (11 percent) and adults without school-age children (11 percent) want full-time remote instruction.

Reflecting the deep politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, support for full-time in-person schooling varies along political lines. Republicans report the strongest support. Eighty-two percent of Republican parents say they want in-person learning. Support among Republicans who are not parents is nearly 10 points lower, at 73 percent. Support among Democrats, on the other hand, is lower and more divided. Two-thirds (66 percent) of Democratic parents want in-person schooling, but among Democrats without school-age children, support is far lower at 36 percent.

Household vaccination status marks substantial differences in opinion about in-person schooling. Perhaps ironically, nonparents in vaccinated households—those in which all eligible members have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine[2]—favor in-person learning at much lower rates than those in unvaccinated households, in which no eligible members have received any COVID-19 vaccination (49 percent vs. 69 percent). Notably, among those living in vaccinated households, the divide in schooling preference is greater between parents and nonparents. Three-quarters (75 percent) of parents in fully vaccinated households favor in-person learning, compared to about half (49 percent) of fully vaccinated nonparents.

Concerns About COVID-19 in Schools

Public concern about the threat of COVID-19 in schools is far greater among adults without school-age children than among those who do have children in school. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) parents are very worried (23 percent) or somewhat worried (36 percent) about their children contracting COVID-19 in their school or childcare center, while 41 percent are either not too worried or not worried at all. Americans without school-age children are even more concerned about COVID-19 infections in local schools. Seventy percent of nonparents say they are very worried (36 percent) or somewhat worried (34 percent) about children in their community getting COVID-19, while 30 percent are either not too worried or not worried at all.

Parental concerns tend to be much higher in Democratic households than Republican households. Democratic parents are far more anxious than Republican parents are about their child contracting COVID-19. Eighty-one percent of Democratic parents say they are very or somewhat worried, compared to 36 percent of Republican parents. Sixty-four percent of Republican parents are either not too worried or not worried at all about their children getting infected.

Masking Requirements in Schools

Despite political fights over masking taking place at school board meetings across the country, there is strong public support for masking requirements in schools. Overall, 63 percent of the public say schools should require universal masking—that is, masks for all students, teachers, and staff regardless of their vaccination status. Another 14 percent of Americans say masking should be required for only the unvaccinated. Only 22 percent say schools should have no mask requirements at all. Parents and nonparents hold nearly identical views on universal masking. Sixty-two percent of parents and 63 percent of nonparents support a universal mask requirement.

Politics appear to be playing an outsized role in views over masking requirements in schools. Democrats almost uniformly support universal masking requirements, while Republicans are more evenly split. Nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) Democrats favor universal masking, compared to 34 percent of Republicans. One in five (20 percent) Republicans believe only the unvaccinated should be required to mask, and 45 percent oppose masking in schools entirely. Only 3 percent of Democrats oppose mask requirements in schools.

Women more strongly support masking requirements than men do. Roughly two-thirds (67 percent) of women think all students, teachers, and staff should wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status, compared to 59 percent of men. The gender gap is even wider among young adults (age 18 to 29). Seventy percent of young women say all school personnel and students should have to wear masks, compared to 55 percent of young men. Three in 10 (30 percent) young men say there should not be any masking requirements at all.

The largest differences over masking requirements are between Americans living in vaccinated and unvaccinated households. In vaccinated households, 72 percent favor universal masking, and just 10 percent oppose any masking requirements. In unvaccinated households, only 34 percent support universal masking requirements, while a majority (63 percent) oppose any masking requirements.[3]

Vaccine Requirements in Schools

Americans overwhelmingly support public schools requiring that students be vaccinated for routine childhood illnesses, such as measles, mumps, and rubella. Eighty-seven percent of Americans favor these mandatory vaccinations, with 64 percent saying they strongly favor, 23 percent saying they somewhat favor, and just 12 percent saying they somewhat or strongly oppose them. Strong support for mandatory vaccines for routine childhood illnesses among parents is lower than that among nonparents (54 percent vs. 67 percent).

Compared to routine childhood illness vaccination requirements, support for COVID-19 vaccination requirements in schools is markedly lower. However, a majority of Americans express support for vaccine requirements. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Americans favor requiring all public school students age 12 and up to be vaccinated for COVID-19 before they can attend school in person. Thirty-eight percent of the public oppose COVID-19 vaccination requirements for eligible students.

Support for vaccine requirements against routine childhood illnesses and COVID-19 differ considerably between partisans. Democratic support for mandatory vaccines remains relatively high for both routine vaccines (92 percent) and the coronavirus vaccine (87 percent). Only 14 percent of Democrats are opposed to COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Among Republicans, however, enthusiasm for mandatory vaccinations is far lower for the COVID-19 vaccine. Roughly eight in 10 (81 percent) Republicans favor requirements for vaccines against childhood illnesses, with nearly half (49 percent) reporting they strongly favor them. Support plummets for COVID-19 vaccinations. Only 39 percent of Republicans express support for COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

Differences in support of mandatory vaccines for childhood illnesses are even larger between vaccinated and unvaccinated households. In vaccinated households, 95 percent approve of childhood vaccine requirements, with 77 percent strongly supporting these proposals. In contrast, among those in unvaccinated households, 65 percent support childhood vaccine requirements, with just 29 percent strongly supporting. Thirty-four percent of those in unvaccinated households somewhat or strongly oppose mandatory routine vaccinations.

This strong support for routine childhood vaccination requirements may stem from the view that they are overwhelmingly safe. Most Americans continue to reject the conspiracy that childhood vaccinations are linked to autism. Overall, more than seven in 10 (71 percent) Americans do not believe childhood vaccines have been shown to cause autism. Ten percent of Americans believe this claim is accurate, and 19 percent report being uncertain about its accuracy. This view is shared across the political spectrum, although Republicans express greater uncertainty. More than six in 10 Democrats (77 percent) and Republicans (65 percent) say it is factually inaccurate that childhood vaccines have been shown to cause autism.

Plans to Vaccinate Children

The divisions in general support for COVID-19 vaccine requirements are echoed in parents’ plans to vaccinate their younger children once COVID-19 vaccines become available. Among parents with children age 11 or younger, 40 percent plan on getting their children vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is approved for their age group, and another 24 percent plan to wait a while to see how it is working. About one-quarter (26 percent) of these parents say they will definitely not get their children vaccinated. Seven percent of parents with younger children will get their child vaccinated only if their school requires it.   

Democratic parents of younger children are over three times more likely than their Republican peers are to get their children vaccinated right away (63 percent vs. 20 percent). Just 9 percent of Democratic parents say they will definitely not get their children under 12 years old vaccinated, compared to 46 percent of Republican parents.

But vaccination decisions are not entirely driven by politics. There is an important educational divide as well. College-educated parents are far more likely than parents without a four-year college degree are to say they will vaccinate their younger children as soon as possible. A majority (56 percent) of college-educated parents say they will get their children vaccinated when they are able, while only 31 percent of those without a college degree say the same.

Even larger differences exist across parents by household COVID-19 vaccination status. In households in which all currently eligible members have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, 65 percent of parents plan to get their children vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is approved for their age group, and 24 percent plan to wait a while to see how it is working. Among unvaccinated households, only 2 percent say they will definitely vaccinate their children immediately. Three-quarters (75 percent) of parents in unvaccinated households say they will definitely not get their children vaccinated.

Assessment of Student Academic Progress in 2020

While test scores in multiple states show that, at least in public schools, student achievement has dropped substantially over the past year and a half,[4] most parents believe their children are where they should be. Most parents report that their children are more or less on track with their reading and writing skills (55 percent), math and science skills (54 percent), mental health and well-being (62 percent), and socialization and communication (58 percent). Higher percentages of parents believe their children are ahead of where they should be than believe their children are behind for both reading and writing (28 percent vs. 16 percent) and math and science (27 percent vs. 18 percent). Parents’ perceptions are remarkably consistent across political identification, household vaccine status, and amount of in-person instruction in the previous year.

Perspectives on Public Education

Americans express generally positive views about American public schools but feel much more strongly about their local school system. Midwesterners are particularly upbeat about the quality of their local schools compared to Americans in other parts of the country, while young adults express the most negative views about public schools in the US.

Views About Public Schools

Americans tend to have more positive views about the quality of public schools in their community than they do about public schools in the country overall. A majority (56 percent) of Americans say they would rate the quality of public schools in their community as either good or excellent. Less than half (45 percent) say the quality of public schools in the US is good or excellent.

Parents rate the quality of public schools in their community somewhat more positively than Americans overall. Two-thirds (66 percent) of parents say the public schools in their community are good or excellent. Parents also provide a more positive appraisal of the public school system in the US overall: 54 percent say public schools in the US are either good or excellent.

Midwesterners are the most upbeat about their local public school systems. Two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans living in the Midwest say their local public schools are either good or excellent. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Americans living in the Northeast also say their local public schools are good or excellent. In contrast, about only half of Americans living in the South (53 percent) or West (51 percent) say the same.

Younger Americans hold significantly more negative attitudes about the quality of public schools in the US. Only 30 percent of young adults (age 18 to 29) say they would rate US public schools as being good or excellent. In contrast, more than half (51 percent) of seniors (age 65 or over) rate schools this highly.

Although most (82 percent) Americans report that the schools they attended growing up provided them with a good education, younger Americans are decidedly more negative about their experience. More than one in four (27 percent) young adults say they did not receive a good education at their schools. Only 13 percent of seniors say they did not receive a good education from the schools they attended during their formative years.

Still, few Americans believe US public schools compare favorably to those in other developed nations. Only 4 percent of Americans believe the US public school system is the best in the world. Twenty-seven percent say it is above average. Forty-two percent of the public say the US public education system is just average in the developed world, while more than one in four (26 percent) Americans say it is below average.

Funding Priorities for Local Schools

When asked about how local schools might spend a one-time funding increase from the federal government, Americans have different ideas about the most important spending priority. More than one in five (21 percent) Americans say increasing teacher pay is the most important action local schools could take with an infusion of funds. Eighteen percent say schools should spend money on funding programs designed to keep kids in school. Fourteen percent of the public say schools should allocate federal funds to support after-school programs or tutoring for students. Thirteen percent of Americans say these funds should be used for improving school facilities, while 11 percent say they should be used to expand mental health services. Fewer Americans say these funds should be dedicated to increasing school security (6 percent), creating or expanding gifted and talented programs (5 percent), or supporting arts and music programs (4 percent) or sports and athletics (1 percent).

Who Should Have a Say in Public Schools?

When it comes to who should have input on what subjects are taught and how they are covered in public high schools, many Americans believe teachers should be in charge. Eighty-five percent of Americans say teachers should have a great deal (42 percent) or a fair amount (43 percent) of say over what students are taught. However, most Americans see a role for parents and administrators as well. More than three-quarters of the public say parents should have a great deal (36 percent) or a fair amount (41 percent) of input on public school curriculum.

Roughly equal numbers say the local school board and the school principal should have a great deal (23 percent vs. 21 percent) or a fair amount (53 percent vs. 49 percent) of influence over decisions regarding what subjects are covered and how they are taught. More than six in 10 Americans say the students themselves should have a great deal (22 percent) or a fair amount (41 percent) of involvement. Fewer Americans believe Congress or state legislators should have a role in making these decisions. Less half of Americans believe state legislators or Congress should have a great deal (8 percent and 7 percent) or a fair amount (34 percent and 30 percent) of influence over public school curriculum.

There are sharp political divisions among the public over the role of teachers versus parents in deciding what should be taught in public schools. Republicans see a much larger role for parents in the decision-making process, while Democrats are more likely to defer to teachers. Nearly half (47 percent) of Republicans say parents should have a great deal of say over curriculum decisions, while only 26 percent of Democrats say the same. Conversely, more than half (52 percent) of Democrats say teachers should have a great deal of influence over what subjects are taught, compared to only 32 percent of Republicans.

Democrats and Republicans do agree on the government’s role in public school education. Less than one in 10 Democrats (8 percent) and Republicans (7 percent) say state legislators should have a great deal of say in what is taught in public schools. A similar number of Democrats (8 percent) and Republicans (5 percent) believe Congress should have a great deal of influence.

Teaching Priorities and Preferences

When asked how important it is for high school students to learn about certain issues and ideas in school, three subjects elicited widespread agreement among the public. Most Americans believe high school students should learn about the role of slavery and racial discrimination in American history, the role of humans in climate change, and sex education. Nearly two-thirds say the role of slavery and racial discrimination in American history is one of the most important (24 percent) or a very important idea (42 percent) students should be taught. More than six in 10 Americans say the way human activity is contributing to climate change is one of the most important ideas (28 percent) or a very important idea (33 percent) high school students should learn. Nearly six in 10 Americans say sex education is one of the most important (17 percent) subjects or a very important (42 percent) subject students should be taught.

Other topics are viewed as less crucial. Less than half of Americans say evolution (49 percent), religious liberty issues (47 percent), and the benefits of free-market capitalism (47 percent) are very important topics or among the most important topics high school students should learn about. Fewer Americans believe the role of Christianity in America’s founding (37 percent) or LGBTQ identity and experience (24 percent) constitute very important or some of the most important subjects that should be taught in high school.

Views about priorities in public education reveal a stark partisan divide. More than eight in 10 (84 percent) Democrats say humans contributing to climate change is very important or one of the most important subjects high school students should learn about. Only 32 percent of Republicans agree. Less than half (44 percent) of Republicans, compared to 88 percent of Democrats, say it is at least very important that students understand the way slavery and racial discrimination shaped American history.

Democrats are also more likely to say it is important that students learn about evolution. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Democrats, compared to 30 percent of Republicans, say evolution is a very important or one of the most important subjects for students to learn. Fifteen percent of Republicans say evolution should not be taught to high school students.

The opinions of Democrats and Republicans are reversed on the subject of free-market capitalism, religious liberty, and the role of Christianity in American history. A majority of Republicans say it is at least very important for high school students to learn about the benefits of free-market capitalism (62 percent), the role of Christianity in America’s founding (58 percent), and religious liberty issues (57 percent). Democrats are far less likely to say these topics are priorities. Less than half of Democrats say the benefits of free-market capitalism (34 percent), the role of Christianity in America’s founding (25 percent), and religious liberty issues (41 percent) are at least very important for high schoolers to learn.

When it comes to teaching the benefits of free-market capitalism, Republican men and women express somewhat different views. Seventy percent of Republican men believe it is very important or one of the most important subjects to be taught. About only half (51 percent) of Republican women share this view. Democratic men and women have near identical views. About a third of Democratic men (36 percent) and women (34 percent) say the benefits of free-market capitalism are one of the most important or very important subjects for high school students to learn.

There are large partisan differences on the subject of LGBTQ identity and experience. While less than half of Democrats (42 percent) say it is a very important or one of the most important topics for students to cover in high school, even fewer Republicans (7 percent) say the same. Notably, 38 percent of Republicans believe the LGBTQ identity and experience should not be taught at all in public high schools.

Patriotism in Public School

Americans generally believe that schools should do more to teach students to love their country. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Americans say they completely or somewhat agree that schools are not doing enough to teach students to love their country. Thirty-eight percent of the public disagree.

Although most Americans believe schools should do more to instill patriotism in students, the issue divides Americans by generation, political affiliation, and religion. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of seniors say schools are not doing enough to teach students to love the US, while less than half (48 percent) of young adults agree. More than half (51 percent) of young Americans do not believe schools need to do more to instill patriotism in students.

Democrats and Republicans diverge sharply over instilling patriotism in schools. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans say schools ought to do more to teach students to love their country, while only 40 percent of Democrats say the same.

No religious group more strongly supports the idea that schools should instill a love of country than White evangelical Protestants. Eighty-three percent of White evangelical Protestants say schools should do more to instill feelings of patriotism. More than six in 10 White Catholics (72 percent) and White mainline Protestants (65 percent) also agree, as do more than half of Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) and Black Protestants (53 percent). Less than half of religiously unaffiliated Americans (45 percent) and Americans who belong to major non-Christian religious traditions (42 percent) agree that schools ought to be doing this.

Participating in the Pledge of Allegiance

The public is evenly divided over whether public school students should be allowed to abstain from participating in the Pledge of Allegiance. Forty-nine percent of Americans favor allowing students to refuse, while 51 percent say they should not be able to.

The issue divides Republicans and Democrats. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Democrats believe students should be allowed to abstain from participating in the Pledge of Allegiance. Only about one in four (26 percent) Republicans support this.

Consistent with their views about teaching patriotism, older Americans express greater reservations about allowing students to refuse saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Sixty-four percent of seniors (age 65 or older) say students should not be permitted to abstain from the Pledge of Allegiance. In comparison, six in 10 (60 percent) young adults say the Pledge of Allegiance should be optional for students.

Sex Education in Public Schools

A majority of Americans believe that sex education should be required for students. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say sex education should be mandatory for students, while 37 percent say it should be optional. Only 4 percent say it should not be taught.

The issue of teaching sex education is not quite as divisive as other issues, although important differences persist among the public. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Democrats believe that sex education should be a required subject—a view shared by a minority (44 percent) of Republicans. Close to half of Republicans (47 percent) say sex education should be optional for students, while 9 percent say the subject should not be taught in schools at all.

Younger adults are more supportive of a sex education requirement than older Americans are. Two-thirds (67 percent) of young adults say students should be required to take a sex education class. Seniors are divided, with about half (51 percent) in support of a requirement and 44 percent saying it should be optional.

Most parents are at least somewhat confident that the local public schools in their community approach sex education with values consistent with those they teach their children at home. Fifty-five percent of parents with school-age children say they feel somewhat or very confident public school sex education programs are based on similar values to those they teach at home. Forty-five percent say they are not confident in public schools’ ability to teach sex education classes in a way that is compatible with their own values.

The content of sex education is another area in which Americans express differing points of view. Overall, close to six in 10 (59 percent) Americans say sex education classes should include discussions of same-sex relationships. Four in 10 (40 percent) Americans disagree.

Democrats strongly support the idea that same-sex relationships should be part of sex education curricula; most Republicans do not. Seventy-eight percent of Democrats agree that gay and lesbian relationships should be a part of sex education, compared to 38 percent of Republicans.

No age group expresses more support for including same-sex relationships than young women. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of young women—and 58 percent of young men—say sex education should include discussion of gay and lesbian relationships. In contrast, older men are among the least supportive of this idea. About half (51 percent) of senior men agree that same-sex relationships should be part of sex education, while nearly as many (49 percent) disagree.

The public is divided over whether sex education should include the contested claim that premarital sexual activity has potentially adverse health consequences. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans say sex education should teach students that engaging in sexual activity outside marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. More than half (51 percent) of Americans do not believe this idea should be taught as part of sex education classes.

Democrats and Republicans are again at odds about whether sex education should teach students the idea that premarital sex can potentially have negative health consequences. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Republicans say this idea should be included in sex education classes, while only 37 percent of Democrats agree.

Religious Americans do not all agree about whether students should be taught the claim that premarital sex is likely to result in psychological and physical harm. A majority of White evangelical Protestants (72 percent), Black Protestants (64 percent), and Hispanic Catholics (54 percent) support teaching this idea. Less than half of White Catholics (49 percent) and White mainline Protestants (44 percent) share this view. Less than one-third (31 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans endorse teaching this idea to students as part of sex education.

Teaching About Race in Schools

Handling sensitive topics, such as race and racism, presents a considerable challenge for many schools. Issues of race arouse strong feelings and frequently feature opposing viewpoints. However, there is broad agreement among the public about the information students should learn about the subject of race.

Slavery and the Civil War

Americans overwhelmingly support teaching students that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Americans favor teaching students that the dispute over slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War. Less than one-quarter (23 percent) are opposed to teaching this idea to students.

Importantly, White and Black Americans are about equally likely to support teaching that slavery was the primary issue that precipitated the Civil War (74 percent vs. 75 percent).

This issue also elicits agreement among both Republicans and Democrats. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Republicans believe students should be taught that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War.

Banning Critical Race Theory

Even as critical race theory (CRT) provokes considerable controversy,[5] most Americans do not support state legislators stepping in to ban public schools from teaching it. Only 40 percent of the public supports state legislators passing laws to ban teaching CRT, while 59 percent of Americans oppose it.

Partisan divisions are evident over views on banning CRT in public schools. More than six in 10 (62 percent) Republicans favor action by state legislators to ban teaching CRT. Only 22 percent of Democrats express support for this action, while 78 percent of Democrats oppose legislative bans.

Public Consensus on “Textbook Controversies”

Americans have been arguing about what should be included in student textbooks for about as long as there have been textbooks. Public discussions over textbook content suggests widespread disagreement, but there is broad consensus among the American public on various topics. Eighty-five percent of Americans say social studies or history textbooks should denote that many of the nation’s Founding Fathers owned slaves. Eighty-three percent of the public support including information about the federal government’s role in creating Japanese internment camps during World War II. Eighty-six percent of Americans say textbooks should include information about the federal government’s forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their own land.

Given the politically tinged nature of disagreements over textbooks, it is even more notable that there is little partisan disagreement over what basic facts should be included in them. Similar numbers of Democrats (90 percent) and Republicans (83 percent) say textbooks should note that many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners. Democrats and Republicans are also about as likely to say information about Japanese internment camps should be included in textbooks (87 percent vs. 85 percent). There is also strong support among both Democrats (92 percent) and Republicans (86 percent) for including information about how the US government forcibly removed Native Americans from their land.

Not every issue engenders agreement among the public. In the early 1970s, a Mississippi history textbook addressed the issue of racial violence by including information about lynching, even including a photo of one.[6] The book was initially rejected by the purchasing board, with one member citing the inclusion of the photo. Nearly 50 years later, Americans have not come to an agreement about whether such an image should be included in history textbooks. Today, half (50 percent) of Americans support including a photo of a lynching in high school history textbooks, while 30 percent oppose it. One in five (20 percent) Americans express uncertainty about whether such a photo should be included.

Racial differences among the public are relatively modest. A majority (56 percent) of Black Americans believe textbooks should include an image of a lynching, while close to half (49 percent) of White Americans and 44 percent of Hispanic Americans agree.

The issue of whether a photo of a lynching should be featured in high school textbooks may provoke disagreement within some households. Fathers and mothers of school-age children express somewhat differing opinions about whether these images should be included in high school textbooks. A majority (57 percent) of fathers say depictions of a lynching should be included in history or social studies textbooks. Less than half (42 percent) of mothers share this view.

There is even less support for including the concept of White privilege in social studies or history textbooks. Less than half (46 percent) of Americans say textbooks should include the concept of White privilege, and 37 percent expressly oppose it. Sixteen percent of the public remain unsure.

Partisan differences loom large over the question of introducing the idea of White privilege in textbooks. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) Democrats say the concept should be included in history or social studies textbooks. Only 22 percent of Republicans support its inclusion. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Republicans oppose textbooks including the concept of White privilege.

On the issue of White privilege, large racial differences emerge. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) Black Americans believe the concept of White privilege should be included in high school textbooks—a position supported by substantially fewer Hispanic (44 percent) and White Americans (42 percent).

Although younger Americans tend to have more liberal attitudes on racial issues than older Americans do, most young White Americans do not support teaching about White privilege in the classroom. Less than half (49 percent) of young White adults say the concept of White privilege should be included in high school textbooks. Thirty-eight percent say it should not be, and 12 percent express uncertainty about whether it should be included.

Teaching Controversial Subjects

Americans generally believe that teachers should not try to avoid controversial subjects, even if it makes some students uncomfortable. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Americans say teachers should address controversial issues, while only 22 percent say these topics should be avoided.

A majority of Americans express at least some confidence in local high school teachers to present controversial issues fairly and honestly. More than half the public say they have a great deal (7 percent) or a fair amount of confidence (48 percent) in public school educators to teach this type of information.

Democrats express much greater confidence than Republicans in public school teachers’ ability to handle sensitive and controversial subjects. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Democrats say they are at least fairly confident in teachers to handle difficult topics. Only 43 percent of Republicans share the same level of confidence.

There is strong support among the public for exposing students to various different perspectives and ideas, even those that may offend certain students. Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea that public school libraries should remove works of literature that include dated words or references that might be offensive to certain groups. Only 23 percent of Americans support removing these works, while 77 percent oppose it.

At the same time, there is near universal public support for ensuring that students read authors from various different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Ninety percent of the public say schools should commit to ensuring students read works by a racially diverse set of authors. Only 10 percent of Americans oppose schools ensuring classes include works from a racially diverse set of authors.

Politics in Schools

Americans are fairly divided over whether politically charged symbols, such as a pride flag or Black Lives Matter banner, should be displayed on school property during the school day. Less than half of Americans favor schools displaying a pride flag (47 percent) or a Black Lives Matter banner (44 percent). More than half the public oppose featuring a pride flag (52 percent), and an even larger share (55 percent) does not support schools hanging signs or banners in support of Black Lives Matter.

There are predictable political differences, although there is a notable intensity gap. At least two-thirds of Democrats would support having pride flag (67 percent) or a Black Lives Matter banner (70 percent) displayed on school property. Only about one-quarter (26 percent) of Republicans support schools displaying a pride flag, and even fewer (17 percent) support Black Lives Matter signs displayed on school property. Republican opposition to schools displaying Black Lives Matter signs is particularly intense. Eighty-three percent of Republicans oppose displaying Black Lives Matter signs on school property, including 65 percent who strongly oppose it.

Religion in Public Schools

Talking about religion in public schools is often considered taboo, but most Americans are not opposed to some aspects of religion being present in the classroom. Americans believe students should be allowed to pray in school, that schools should be permitted to celebrate religious holidays, and that students should be free to learn about various religious traditions.

Celebrating Religious Holidays at Public Schools

Americans express considerable support for displaying religious symbols in public schools to mark religious holidays. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) Americans would support public schools displaying a Christmas tree. There is even strong support for more explicitly religious symbols. Roughly two-thirds of Americans say they would be in favor of public schools displaying the Christian nativity scene (64 percent) on school grounds, while just as many (64 percent) would support schools displaying a Jewish menorah as a symbol of Hanukkah. A slim majority (53 percent) of Americans also support public schools displaying a star and crescent moon as the symbol of the Muslim holiday Ramadan. Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans say they would oppose schools displaying this symbol on school property.

Learning About the Bible and World Religions

Most Americans are comfortable with students learning about religion in school. More than eight in 10 (83 percent) Americans say they would be comfortable with high school students learning about world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam in school. Only 16 percent of the public say this would make them uncomfortable. Americans are also quite comfortable with allowing students at a local public high school to take an optional class on the Bible. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Americans say they would be very or somewhat comfortable with an optional class on this topic being offered at the local public high school. Only 23 percent say this would make them uncomfortable.

Prayer in School

Since 1962, the Supreme Court has ruled that school-sponsored prayer in public schools, including at events such as graduation, is unconstitutional.[7] However, voluntary student-led prayer activities are permissible.[8] Today, a majority of Americans (56 percent) report that they would favor allowing daily prayer to be spoken in the classroom. Forty-four percent of Americans object to daily prayer in school.

Support for daily prayer has dropped considerably over the past couple decades. In 1999, 70 percent of Americans voiced support for allowing daily prayer to be spoken in the classroom, while 28 percent opposed it. Much of this drop is likely attributable to the rising number of nonreligious Americans who strongly oppose prayer in public schools.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans stand out for their lack of support for prayer in school. Approximately one-quarter (26 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans express support for prayer in the classroom. Americans who belong to non-Christian religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, also express little enthusiasm for the practice; only 29 percent support it.

The issue of school prayer garners much more robust support among Christians. No religious group expresses more enthusiasm for daily prayer in school than White evangelical Protestants. Eighty-six percent of White evangelical Protestants favor allowing daily prayer in the classroom. There is also strong support for daily prayer among Black Protestants (73 percent), White Catholics (59 percent), White mainline Protestants (58 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (57 percent).

The public expresses solid support for allowing coaches at public high schools to lead their team in Christian prayer before games. Sixty percent of Americans believe public school coaches should be allowed to lead the team in Christian prayer at the outset.

Christians express emphatic support for allowing coaches to lead their teams in Christian prayer. At least two-thirds of White evangelical Protestants (89 percent), Black Protestants (79 percent), White Catholics (67 percent), and White mainline Protestants (67 percent) believe coaches at public schools should be allowed to lead their teams in Christian prayer before games. Notably, less than half (49 percent) of Hispanic Catholics and about one-third (35 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans and roughly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans who belong to non-Christian religious traditions agree.

Should Teachers Share Religious Beliefs in Class?

Most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of teachers talking about their personal religious beliefs in class. This is true regardless of whether the teacher in question is an evangelical Christian or an atheist. A majority (59 percent) of Americans say they would be uncomfortable with an evangelical Christian sharing their personal religious beliefs with their students, while about four in 10 (41 percent) say they would be comfortable with this. Americans are somewhat more uncomfortable with an atheist teacher talking about their personal religious beliefs: 65 percent say this would make them uncomfortable. Only a third (33 percent) of Americans say they would feel comfortable with an atheist teacher talking with their students about their religious beliefs.

Most religious groups express some amount of discomfort with the idea of a teacher sharing their personal religious beliefs. However, a majority (71 percent) of White evangelical Protestants report that they would feel comfortable with an evangelical Christian teacher sharing their religious beliefs in class. Considerably fewer White Catholics (39 percent), White mainline Protestants (33 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (27 percent) say this would not bother them.

A majority of every religious group say they would be uncomfortable with an atheist teacher sharing their views about religion. This is true even among the religiously unaffiliated. Fifty-six percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans say they would not feel comfortable with an atheist teacher discussing their religious beliefs in class.

Atheist Student Groups

Despite the substantial reservations expressed by most Americans about teachers sharing their religious beliefs in class, most Americans support allowing a group of atheist students to organize an after-school club at the local public high school. More than six in 10 (63 percent) Americans say they would be in favor of allowing students to form an atheist club that would meet after normal school hours.

Although Republicans tend to hold more negative views about atheists than Democrats do, there is little political disagreement over allowing public school students to start an atheist club. Roughly six in 10 (58 percent) Republicans and a similar number of Democrats (64 percent) express support for this type of student-led activity.

Teaching Creationism and Intelligent Design

In general, most Americans do not perceive any conflict between their personal or religious beliefs and the theory of evolution. Sixty-three percent of the public do not see any conflict between their religious and personal beliefs and the theory of evolution. About one in three (35 percent) Americans say evolution directly conflicts with their own beliefs.

However, a majority of White evangelical Protestants (72 percent) and Black Protestants (55 percent) say evolution conflicts with their religious worldview. Among no other major religious tradition do members say there is a large conflict. Less than one-third of White Catholics (30 percent), Hispanic Catholics (30 percent), White mainline Protestants (28 percent), members of non-Christian religions (13 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (13 percent) say evolution conflicts with their own beliefs.

Despite relatively few Americans saying the theory conflicts with their own worldview, many Americans also favor teaching creationism or intelligent design as alternative theories to evolution. Half (50 percent) the public favor teaching creationism in public schools, while nearly half (48 percent) oppose it.

The teaching of creationism or intelligent design enjoys support among a number of religious groups. A majority of White evangelical Protestants (66 percent), Hispanic Catholics (60 percent), Black Protestants (57 percent), and White mainline Protestants (52 percent) favor teaching creationism or intelligent design as alternatives to evolution. Less than half of White Catholics (46 percent), members of non-Christian religious traditions (36 percent), and unaffiliated Americans (33 percent) express support for teaching these ideas alongside evolution.


About the Authors

Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in survey research, politics, youth culture and identity, and religion.

Nat Malkus is a senior fellow and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


Survey Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,625 adults (age 18 and up), including an oversample of 610 respondents who are parents with children under the age 18 living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviewing was conducted between August 16 and August 26 2021. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English.

Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or mail to participate in the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, Ipsos provides at no cost a laptop and internet service provider connection. People who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

The data were weighted to adjust for gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, and household income. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables.

The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 2.2 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.3.

Notes


[1] In this report, parents of school-age children are those with a child between age 3 and 17, who could be expected to attend school in the 2021–22 school year.

[2] The term “vaccinated households” does not necessarily refer to households in which all members are “fully vaccinated.” (At the time of writing, an individual is considered to be “fully vaccinated” if they have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.) For this report, “vaccinated households” are those in which all eligible members have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. “Partially vaccinated households” are those in which some eligible members have received at least one dose. “Unvaccinated households” are those in which none of the eligible members have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

[3] Opinion in partially vaccinated households fell in between those in vaccinated and unvaccinated households.

[4] Vladimir Kogan and Stéphane Lavertu, “How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Student Learning in Ohio: Analysis of Spring 2021 Ohio State Tests,” Ohio State University, August 28, 2021, http://glenn.osu.edu/educational-governance/reports/reports-attributes/210828_KL_OST_Final.pdf; Nat Malkus, “Texas Provides an Early, Ominous Look at Pandemic Learning Loss,” AEIdeas, June 30, 2021, https://www.aei.org/education/texas-provides-an-early-ominous-look-at-pandemic-learning-loss/; Jennifer Chambers, “Michigan’s M-STEP Scores Show Dramatic Declines During Pandmic Year,” Detroit News, August 31, 2021, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/education/2021/08/31/michigan-schools-m-step-scores-show-dramatic-declines/5659443001/; Hannah Natanson, “Standardized Testing Scores Drop in Virginia, Reflecting Impact of Pandemic,” New York Times, September 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virginia-school-exams-sol-scores-covid/2021/09/01/781483a2-0b4f-11ec-aea1-42a8138f132a_story.html; and Adria Watson, “Students Who Learned Remotely Had Lower Scores, Report Shows,” Connecticut Mirror, September 1, 2021, https://ctmirror.org/2021/09/01/students-remote-in-person-hybrid-lower-scores-ct-sbac-sat-tests/.

[5] Anthony Zurcher, “Critical Race Theory: The Concept Dividing the US,” BBC, July 22, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57908808.

[6] Luke Ramseth, “The Story of a 1970s Mississippi Textbook That Changed How Students Learned About Their Past,” Clarion-Ledger, December 2, 2020, https://www.clarionledger.com/in-depth/news/education/2020/12/03/textbook-changed-how-mississippi-students-learned-their-past/3623258001/.

[7] US Courts, “Facts and Case Summary—Engel v. Vitale,” https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-engel-v-vitale.

[8] Rebecca Riffkin, “In U.S., Support for Daily Prayer in Schools Dips Slightly,” Gallup, September 25, 2014, https://news.gallup.com/poll/177401/support-daily-prayer-schools-dips-slightly.aspx.

Survey Reports

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Public places and commercial spaces: How neighborhood amenities foster trust and connection in American communities

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The August 2021 American Perspectives Survey reveals surprising consensus and controversy on American attitudes towards COVID-19, race, and religion in public schools.

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The great American jobs reshuffle

The June 2021 American Perspectives Survey (APS) finds that people’s work arrangements and preferences, unemployment experiences, and career aspirations are changing as workers navigate the new post-pandemic labor market.

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The state of American friendship: Change, challenges, and loss

The May 2021 American Perspectives Survey finds that Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.

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