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Half of Black parents want schools to spend more time tackling racism, poll finds

A teacher leads a Black History lecture with her high school class. The students and teacher are wearing masks. There is a large flag with red, black, and green bars and a white outline of Africa behind her.

Teacher Keziah Ridgeway led a mock Colored Convention last year at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School. As part of the exercise, the students formed groups/delegations to help find solutions for problems affecting Black America.

Alexandre da Veiga for Chalkbeat

Nearly two-thirds of parents say that their child’s school places an appropriate emphasis on slavery, racism, and discrimination against Black people, according to a new poll.

But one group stands out as least likely to approve of schools’ approach: Black parents, half of whom wanted more emphasis on these topics.

The data suggests that Republican-led efforts to limit schools’ focus on race and racism — despite being done under the banner of parental rights — may represent the views of a minority of parents. Or perhaps these efforts have already assuaged conservative parents’ concerns, but prompted new concern from Black families. 

Either way, the results underscore considerable discontent among Black parents about how schools are approaching topics related to race and racism.

“Parents of Black students are more likely to say that schools should be emphasizing these issues,” said David Houston, an education researcher at George Mason University.

The survey, conducted in May and released this week by Education Next, asked a nationally representative group of parents about an array of education issues.

Sixty-four percent said their child’s school places “about the right amount” of emphasis “on slavery, racism, and other challenges faced by Black people in the United States.” Eleven percent said there was too much emphasis on these topics, while 25% said too little.

This was striking and somewhat surprising, said Houston, who co-authored the survey. 

“That’s a large majority of parents saying their child’s school is handling this appropriately,” he said. “It’s a minority that says otherwise.”

This pattern applied across different groups of parents — school type, child’s grade level, and even partisanship. Sixty-nine percent of Republican parents said their child’s school placed an appropriate emphasis on race and racism.

Beyond issues related to race, the vast majority of parents — 86% — were at least somewhat satisfied with their child’s school more generally.

But when when it comes to addressing race and racism, there was more discontent among Black parents, 49% of whom wanted more focus on racism and slavery in their child’s school. An additional 47% said schools struck the right balance.

Tearsa Thomas, a parent from Baltimore who is Black, said that the schools her three sons have attended in the city spent a significant — and appropriate — amount of time discussing racism and its impacts.

“As young people here in the United States, it’s one thing to learn about something from the past, but to be able to understand how it connects to their present is important,” she said. “It’s part of the school’s responsibility.”

If anything she would have liked more focus on how racism directly affects her children personally and how to address and mitigate it.

Thomas also never got the impression that teachers were pushing their own political views on her children. “They were given room to speak freely about their perspective,” she said.

Education Next’s results are somewhat surprising in light of the fact that many schools and states have faced high-profile pressure from parents and community members who say schools have spent too much time on race-focused equity efforts, often derided as “critical race theory.” These critics say that many schools have incorporated race in a way that is not age appropriate, unfairly categorizes children by their skin color, and overstates the impact of racism in American society and history.

Parents who have this frustration may be in the minority — but they also may be the most motivated, organized, and listened to. National conservative think tanks and media outlets have supported and elevated this perspective.

The poll results might also be explained by the fact that some of the backlash is coming from people who don’t have children in local public schools or from parents who are concerned about schools other than their own children’s. For instance, a Chalkbeat analysis found that only a third of complaints about elementary school books in one Tennessee district came from parents with young children in the local public schools.

Notably, rates of dissatisfaction with schools’ approach to racism appear much higher among the general public than among parents. According to the Education Next poll, 35% of all Americans say local public schools don’t place enough emphasis on racism, while 27% say there is too much much emphasis. Here, there were much sharper partisan divides.

“The partisan debate is a debate among the public. It is not really a debate among parents,” said Houston.

Some conservative critiques may be resonating with the broader public, though, as Republicans have eroded Democrats’ long-standing advantage on education issues.

Efforts to limit the emphasis on race in schools — which have produced a flurry of laws in red states — already appear to be impacting what’s taught in classrooms. One in four teachers say they have been told to limit discussion of hot-button political topics, including race, according to a recent survey

That may have reduced some parents’ dissatisfaction with the approach of their child’s school, while increasing concerns among Black families and Democrats. Republican parents in red states had higher levels of satisfaction with schools’ approach than those in blue states. But Democratic parents in red states were especially likely to say they wanted more emphasis on race and racism.

Finally, the wording of the Education Next survey question — particularly the mention of slavery — may have led fewer parents to express dissatisfaction than a question about present-day racism. There appears to be more widespread support for schools discussing racism as a historical matter than as an issue that still remains.

“We struggled with coming up with the right form of this question,” said Houston

But the results are at least somewhat in line with other polling. An NPR poll from April found that only 19% of parents said their child’s school taught about race and racism in a way that was inconsistent with their values, although a large number didn’t have a firm opinion either way.

Matt Barnum is a national reporter covering education policy, politics, and research. Contact him at mbarnum@chalkbeat.org.

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