How are principals responding to political interference? Not so well

"I believe that schools should promote diverse thinking, protect students who may be in a minority of thinking or lifestyle, and teach students to respect everyone," said one Texas principal.

For one principal, there’s a “growing divide… pretty much down political lines [that] is making it hard to manage a school community—more than any other era in my 20 years of administrative experience.” And that seems to be the consensus for most education leaders around the country.

From dictating what teachers can and can’t discuss in the classroom to book bans, the world of education has seen significant changes as politics continue to creep their way into our educational systems.

Teachers have consistently been caught in the crossfires of it all, and it’s leading to an exodus of educators in some states. Take Texas, for example. At the start of the school year, 70% of teachers said they were “seriously” considering abandoning the profession for good. And what was their reasoning? Among neglect and COVID, politics was a dominating factor.

The fight for supporting America’s teachers will continue, but what about our leaders? A new survey conducted by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California Los Angeles and the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California Riverside showcases the concerns of nearly 700 high school principals surrounding political interference in their schools. Here’s what they found.

“Public schools increasingly are targets of conservative political groups focusing on what they term ‘Critical Race Theory,’ as well as issues of sexuality and gender identity,” the report reads. “These political conflicts have created a broad chilling effect that has limited opportunities for students to practice respectful dialogue on controversial topics and make it harder to address rampant misinformation.”

The study highlights schools within blue, purple or red congressional districts to understand how the political makeup of a school correlates with conflicts and practices that arise within it. Blue districts, for example, represent areas where former president Donald Trump won less than 45% of the votes. Purple areas gave Trump between 45% and 54.9% of their votes, and red gathered 55% or more.

In purple communities, where there’s essentially a bipartisan split, principals were more likely to report incidents of students making hateful remarks toward their peers based on their political views. Similarly, 45% of all principals said the level of conflict during the 2021-2022 school year was “more” or “much more” than it was before the pandemic. Only 3% reported a decrease in conflict related to political discussion.

Additionally, nearly half of principals in blue areas reported offering professional development for staff on how to “conduct productive discussions of controversial issues.”

According to one Iowa principal, political conflict is detrimental to effective discussion.

“I had to come down and help the teacher, like a veteran teacher, who’s never had problems having discussions,” they said. “And the kids were just so stuck in their trenches, they weren’t willing to be open to even listen to the other side.”

Predictably, it also makes it more difficult to tackle misinformation.

“The only way I think we’re going to get out of a situation like this is teaching kids, and maybe even the greater public at large, what is good information,” one principal from Nebraska said.

Nearly two-thirds of principals said that their districts’ parents or community members have raised concerns about the information used by teachers in the classroom. This issue is most prevalent in purple areas, or equally divided districts. Survey respondents also said students were challenging their teachers on such information. 60% of principals said they’ve had students reject the information sources that were used by their teachers, and nearly half (49%) of all high school principals said they’ve dealt with multiple instances of students making “unfounded claims” in class using unreliable news sources.

For one Minnesota principal, bringing politics into the school system was absolutely prohibited.

“My superintendent told me in no uncertain terms that I could not address issues of race and bias etc. with students or staff this year,” according to the survey. “We could not address the deeper learning. He told me, ‘This is not the time or the place to do this here. You have to remember you are in the heart of Trump country and you’re just going to start a big mess if you start talking about that.'”

Another issue that plagues America’s school systems is the influence parents are having on their child’s education. Far right-winged groups, like Moms for Liberty, are having education leaders stripped of their jobs in a continuous effort to “defend their parental rights.”

Nearly half of all principals (48%) reported having parents or other community members seeking “to limit or challenge… teaching and learning about issues of race and racism” during the 2021-2022 school year. This issue is more dramatic in purple areas (63%).

Lastly, principals believe that there is a great amount of conflict aimed to limit the protections of LGBTQ+ students and staff. “Our wonderful school counselors also took abuse from parents—one counselor described to me how a parent screamed at her on the phone and called her a ‘homo lover,'” said one principal from California. “It’s quite disheartening to work so hard and care for all our students when so many people are being hateful and threatening.”

This feeling was shared by 48% of all principals as they reported incidents of parents or community members seeking to challenge LGBTQ+ rights in their schools this school year.

As one Texas principal explains, education is for everyone, and access to such an opportunity must not be hindered.

“I believe that schools should promote diverse thinking, protect students who may be in a minority of thinking or lifestyle, and teach students to respect everyone,” they said. “Teachers and school employees can model acceptance of all, civil discussions and disagreements, and a mode of thought that does not indoctrinate, but allows for developing brains to learn how to become tolerant of all and respectful of all.”

More from DA: Moms for Liberty is connected to the firing of yet another superintendent

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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