The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poll finds sharp partisan divides over teaching LGBTQ issues

Republicans want more parental control of the curriculum, while Democrats are more likely to trust teachers

An attendee holds a pride flag during a Fairfax County School Board meeting on July 14. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

Americans believe high school students should have broad access to books on many controversial topics — but there are large partisan differences when they cover LGBTQ issues, with Democrats far more comfortable with these texts than Republicans, a new survey finds.

The poll also found that Republicans want parents to have much more control over curriculums, reflecting GOP suspicions that schools are teaching their children subjects that parents find objectionable; Democrats favor giving teachers more power over what is taught.

These findings come from a large new survey by researchers at the University of Southern California that depicts a nation deeply divided along partisan lines about certain topics in education — and joined by consensus on a few others.

“Americans overwhelmingly want high school to be a place where students learn about multiple sides of controversial topics, and they are free to access books touching on a variety of controversial content,” the report concluded. It added that laws passed across the country limiting teaching of controversial topics run counter to these views.

For instance, the report found that large majorities of Republicans and Democrats supported teaching high school students about sex education, voting rights, immigrant rights, gun issues, income inequality, racial inequality, patriotism, and the contributions of women and people of color.

Gender identity lessons, banned in some schools, are rising in others

But Democrats were more open than Republicans to teaching children about the opposing sides of certain arguments. For instance, on abortion, about equal shares in both parties — 77 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans — support teaching the “pro-life position.” Far more Democrats (92 percent) than Republicans (60 percent) supported teaching the “pro-choice position.”

And while gay and transgender rights and acceptance in the United States have generally advanced in recent years, the partisan split was profound when it comes to teaching these subjects. About 85 percent of Democrats said that high school students should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity. That compares with 37 percent of Republicans who want students to learn about sexual orientation and 32 percent who want them taught about gender identity.

Those numbers drop further when it comes to assigning books on these topics. Fewer than 3 in 10 adults support assigned reading in high school that depicts sex between people of the same sex; just 7 percent support it for elementary school.

Fewer than 4 in 10 people support assigned reading of books that discuss the experiences of gay and lesbian people in high school.

Support rose considerably for simply making these books available — for instance, in the library — rather than assigning them compulsorily to high school students, although Democrats were far more open to this than Republicans. Overall, 68 percent of adults support making books about the experiences of lesbian or gay people available to high school students, a total that includes 84 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans.

The survey found deep partisan divides over who should influence what goes into the curriculum.

Trust in teachers is plunging amid a culture war in education

Half of all Republicans said that parents should have the most influence, compared with 20 percent of Democrats who said the same. Those views are reflected in GOP-sponsored parent “bill of rights” legislation around the country, which require schools to post all instructional materials online and otherwise provide for parental oversight.

Democrats were much more likely to favor teachers when it comes to influence over what is taught. Almost 30 percent of Democrats said teachers should have the most influence, double the rate of Republicans.

On one of the hottest education topics in recent years, the survey found that most adults — regardless of political party — knew little about critical race theory, an academic field that looks at the impact of structural racism and that has been adopted by conservatives to describe a basket of policies and lessons related to race and equity. About half of respondents said they had never heard the term or had heard it but didn’t know what it means. Just about 15 percent said they knew a lot about it or enough to explain it to others.

And even those who said they had heard of critical race theory did poorly when asked whether various academic ideas were part of the field. For instance, just 16 percent of this group correctly replied that “colorblindness,” where people are treated the same regardless of skin color, is not part of critical race theory. In fact, critical race theory holds that awareness of race is essential to eliminating racism.

The survey of 3,751 adults was conducted from Aug. 15 through Sept. 12. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus two percentage points for the full sample, larger for subgroups. The researchers behind the report are affiliated with USC’s Rossier School of Education and the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, also at USC.

New critical race theory laws have teachers scared, confused and self-censoring