Shocking admission: Biggest educational challenges most Americans agree on may surprise you

In today’s hotly divided partisan climate, we can take comfort in knowing both Democrats and Republicans agree on some educational issues – and at least one suggested solution.

A new survey…

In today’s hotly divided partisan climate, we can take comfort in knowing both Democrats and Republicans agree on some educational issues – and at least one suggested solution.

A new survey from Pew Research Center finds at least half of all U.S. adults believe “the country’s public K-12 education system is generally going in the wrong direction.”

It’s a stunning admission of dissatisfaction with public schools, especially when an estimated third of those who didn’t choose this answer (32%) simply opted out by saying “not sure.”

Most importantly, people from both major political parties agree schools should focus more on core academic topics such as “reading, math, science, and social studies.”

Let’s explore the issues Americans see with public schools – along with constructive ways to address those concerns.

Teachers’ personal views

We’ll start with the issue having the smallest amount of bipartisan consensus, which involved teachers “bringing their personal political and social views into the classroom.”

A hefty 76% of Republicans considered this an issue, compared to only 23% of Democrats. However, this divide may be less of a problem than we think, considering American history and how we’ve sustained such a pluralistic society. Building First Amendment freedoms into the fabric of U.S. government means teachers can have as many diverse political and social beliefs as they want. 

Teachers tend to identify more as Democrats than Republicans, which probably explains why Republicans consider this more of a problem than Democrats. 

However, adherents of both parties should agree on one principle: teachers shouldn’t infringe on other people’s political and social views, just as they wouldn’t want others infringing upon theirs. 

Yet it’s happened recently for many students and their families whose viewpoints differ from their teachers’. Some examples: 

  • Jewish parents and teachers protesting a Portland teachers’ union social justice guidebook on Palestinian advocacy. “If this were used in the classroom, it could potentially make a Jewish student feel unsafe,” said Robert Horenstein, director of community relations and public affairs at Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. 
  • A Nevada schoolteacher displaying gay pride flags in her classroom, even after a school board trustee warned her this violated state law and board policy. 
  • A teacher in Wisconsin going against her school district’s policies not to use politically charged imagery when choosing the song Rainbowland for a school event involving 1st graders. 

Public schools cannot have it both ways. Either educators must make room for all their constituents’ viewpoints, including those they disagree with, or they at least must follow official policies – however imperfect and flawed – to avoid anything politically contentious while teaching. 

Anything in-between sets up teachers as censors in the classroom, determining which of their students’ viewpoints to allow or exclude. No one can call this a healthy basis for explaining foundational U.S. principles of democratic republicanism. 

Lack of funding, resources 

The second issue involves school funding and resources, which 78% of Democrats considered “insufficient” compared to only 33% of Republicans. 

At first glance, this argument seems plausible when looking at teacher salaries. They’ve remained “relatively stagnant” since the 1950s, explains Lindsey Burke for The Daily Signal. 

“This choice made by teachers unions – to prioritize hiring more staff (teaching and nonteaching staff) over higher salaries – equates to more dues-paying union members, which is, of course, good for the unions’ bottom line,” Burke explains. 

“Public schools chose to fund a nonteaching staffing surge rather than direct ever-increasing taxpayer-funded spending to higher teacher salaries.” 

In a system with zero accountability on how money is spent, public schools now cost even more than private schools in some places. Still, children are lagging further behind in actual academic progress. 

Kentucky provides one example where fewer than half of all high school students achieve reading and math proficiency, yet public schools receive more than $18,000 in funding per student. 

Ultimately, “public schools don’t have a teacher-shortage problem,” Burke concludes. “They have a problem with the misallocation of abundant resources.” 

Parents vs. teachers 

The third issue concerns parental involvement, where 46% of Democrats surveyed said “parents have too much say in what schools are teaching.” In contrast, this issue resonated with only 13% of Republicans. 

How can we address this in a way that satisfies Americans of all political stripes? To answer this question, let’s look at historical standards for the U.S. educational system. 

Parents have always played a prominent role in teaching their children, both nationally and worldwide, for thousands of years. Most American children before the 1800s experienced a home-based education, according to U.S. historians

Even during much of the 19th century, “the school was a voluntary and incidental institution,” writes David Tyack in his book The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education

Once public schooling became compulsory, a battle ensued between parents and teachers that makes today’s parent-teacher conflicts look mild by comparison. 

“Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts around 1850,” explained the late John Taylor Gatto, an award-winning schoolteacher who called for school reform in the 1990s. 

“It was resisted – sometimes with guns – by an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.” 

While we all hope to prevent such extreme incidents from recurring, this story highlights the importance of knowing our nation’s history and ongoing tensions between parents and the state. 

Furthermore, it points to a better way – encouraging parents and teachers to view each other as partners who want to help all children thrive, academically and socially. 

“Family is the main engine of education,” Gatto said. “If we use schooling to break children away from parents – and make no mistake, that has been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850 – we’re going to continue to have the horror show we have right now.” 

Unfortunately, the horror show Gatto referred to in 1990 has only intensified. In one recent example, schools still need parental permission for field trips and medical prescriptions, yet they can withhold a child’s “assertion of their gender identity” from their own parents. 

“A field trip might make Johnny’s day, and a Tylenol might make his headache go away, but they won’t profoundly change the way he understands the world or the entire trajectory of his life,” writes Thomas Jipping for The Daily Signal. 

“These policies do not address curriculum or school administration. Courts have held that parents’ right(s) to direct the upbringing of their children do not extend that far. No, these policies are about matters that are squarely on the parents’ side of that line. They impose the schools’ gender ideology upon students and parents, potentially destroying family relationships and changing lives forever.” 

Every American needs to understand the importance of parental rights in education, especially since even liberal commentators acknowledge the advantages of parental involvement. 

“For decades, research from around the world has shown that parents’ involvement in and engagement with their child’s education – including through parent-teacher conferences, parent-teacher organizations, school events, and at-home discussions about school – can lead to higher student achievement and better social-emotional outcomes,” writes Libby Stanford for the left-leaning Education Week magazine. 

Instead of worrying whether parents have “too much say” over what schools are teaching, why not work with parents to address any concerns so every child can benefit? 

“The principle that parents have the right to direct the upbringing, care, and education of their children has philosophical and legal roots dating back centuries,” Jipping explains. “In a 2000 decision, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the Supreme Court that ‘the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children’ is ‘perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.’” 

Core academic subjects 

By far, the one issue gaining the most agreement with both Republicans and Democrats involved schools’ lack of focus on “core academic subjects.” 

Since 79% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats agreed this was an issue, why aren’t we doing more as a society to address it? 

One reason may stem from the difficulty of proving actual negligence on the part of schools if they fail to teach their students – well, pretty much anything. 

Every taxpayer needs to know the billions they pay each year – $954 billion in the 2020-21 school year alone – goes toward a government system without a legal obligation to educate anyone. 

“While educators can be held liable for infringing on students’ rights and for negligence that causes students physical harm, educators do not have a legal responsibility to educate students,” professors Terri A. DeMitchell and Todd A. DeMitchell write in an article headlined “A Crack in the Educational Malpractice Wall.” 

Hopefully, surveys such as these indicate Americans on both sides of the political aisle are waking up to the dismal state of government-funded education. Awareness is the first step toward any kind of positive change, but we need to do more. 

It’s time we the people – Democrats and Republicans – demand greater accountability from our current educational system so we can better prepare our children for life after public schools.