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Today’s political debate about the fundamental value of public education is unlike anything our country has seen. Across party lines, schools and school boards have become political front-page news. The culture wars have infiltrated America’s classrooms. There is no doubt that the politics being forced into our public education system will be front and center this election year.
Earlier this month, Murmuration fielded a national survey to gauge where voters stood on critical issues related to education ahead of the 2022 cycle. The findings from the Murmuration Politics of Education Benchmark poll present a very different political picture than we are accustomed to seeing. For starters, a majority of the 1,075 respondents, 52%, recognize K-12 education as very important — a promising sign when you consider how paltry turnout has been for school board elections. That number jumps to 63% who believe K-12 education is very important in making their communities and the country stronger in the future.
With so many voters seeing education as a high-priority issue, the real question is: What will drive their views and votes? The Benchmark poll shows that only 7% of registered voters rate the US education system as excellent. Three times that many, 22%, rate it as poor. And two-thirds believe more needs to be done as a nation to ensure that every child in America has the opportunity to receive a high-quality public education, regardless of the color of their skin or their zip code.
What’s driving these views is a better understanding of the current state of education, the result of firsthand experience over the past few years. During the pandemic, when schools were shuttered and students were forced to learn remotely, parents got, for perhaps the first time, a good look at what was (or was not) happening in their kid’s classrooms. Now, they’re asking questions about how to ensure their children are succeeding, and how to advance equity and learning for all students.
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One thing is clear: Voters want change. Fifty-three percent overall, and 55% of those with school-aged children, believe now is the time to work on big ideas and changes to improve education, compared with 38% who believe “getting back to normal” should be the focus. This support for implementing innovation now spans gender, generation, race and ethnicity. While a larger percentage of Democrats are likely to see the urgency of change, the majority of Republican and Independent voters in the survey do so as well.
More striking are the differences in the sentiments of older and younger voters when it comes to the challenges of fixing the nation’s education system. There is a consistent generational gap across both major parties: While older voters seem more susceptible to culture war arguments, those under the age of 40 believe that, together, the nation can do what’s necessary — including embracing ideas typically associated with the other side of the aisle — to ensure every child has access to a high-quality public education.
For example, young Democrats support the idea of school choice, and young Republicans are more likely than their Baby Boomer counterparts to support unions.
And while the collective attention usually focuses on the top of the ballot, education champions and political strategists need to pay attention to the down-ballot races. Given the historically low turnout rates for school board elections, narrowly focused interest groups can influence outcomes by persuading and turning out just a small percentage of voters. That is why it is critical for champions of public education to engage in school boards and other relevant races now, and to invest in deep and long-term community organizing, as well as the shorter- and longer-term advocacy work needed to sustain forward momentum overtime.
Death threats targeted at school board members, banning of books and similar extremist tactics threaten to further undermine people’s faith in public education — and the nation’s ability to prioritize children and pursue necessary and positive changes to education. If people who choose to push narrow interests take control of school boards, the impact will be catastrophic to the nation, and to Black and Latino families in particular, undermining not only educational progress, but the country’s democracy, economy, and national security.
The 2022 election cycle has already begun, and education will be a factor that voters consider at the ballot box as they exercise their right to vote and determine the nation’s path forward. As education advocates, we cannot allow culture wars and partisan politics to distract from efforts to fix equity, quality and access issues that have existed for decades. The nation must be aligned on shared values and invest in the K-12 education system. The future of America, and its children, depends on it.
Emma Bloomberg is founder and CEO of Murmuration, an organization that advises and supports community-based organizations across the country in their efforts to plan and execute successful, data-driven community organizing, advocacy and electoral campaigns. More info at www.murmuration.org.
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