Deep Partisan Divide Over LGBTQ+ Content in Schools: Study

School classroom
School classroom

There are "clearly partisan" divides over the inclusion of content addressing LGBTQ+ issues, race, and other supposedly controversial subjects in schools, says a new study from the University of Southern California.

"While Republican state leaders are backing public schools away from directly addressing race, gender, and sexual identity — as well as their historical injustices — in the U.S., Democratic state leaders are pushing in the opposite direction, mandating curricula and coursework discussing America’s racist origins and legacies and highlighting the contributions throughout history of women and people of color," says the study, titled "A House Divided? What Americans Really Think About Controversial Topics in Schools."

Among the general population, both Republicans and Democrats surveyed by USC said it's good to teach high school students about certain subjects, including sex education, voting rights, and racism, but there was a great divide when it came to discussion of LGBTQ+ matters. Eighty-five percent of Democrats approved of teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, but among Republicans, 37 percent said it's OK to teach about sexual orientation and 32 percent felt that way about gender identity.

Most respondents didn't approve of assigning books that depict same-sex relationships, but more Democrats than Republicans said these books should be available in school libraries as optional reading for high schoolers — 84 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans.

“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 study states.

However, many Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — did not believe that elementary-age students should have access to LGBTQ+ content. About 53 percent of respondents said elementary school students should be able to read books portraying families with same-sex parents; 73 percent agreed to this for high schoolers. But a majority opposed elementary-age children having access to books depicting sexual experiences, either same-sex or opposite, or books that portray what the survey called broadly "experience of transgender people" or "experiences of lesbian or gay people."

Republicans believe schools deliver what they would deem objectionable subject matter to their children and are more likely to want more control over what their children learn, while Democrats, on the other hand, favor giving teachers more authority over curricula.

Nearly six out of 10 of all respondents said transgender rights should be taught generally, while 65 percent said teachers should teach about LGBTQ+ rights.

Democrats were more willing to teach children opposing points of view on various subjects. Democrats and Republicans support teaching about anti-abortion rights arguments in about the same numbers — 77 percent and 74 percent, respectively. In contrast, as opposed to 60 percent of Republicans, 92 percent of Democrats support teaching about pro-choice positions.

There are deep partisan divides over who should decide what goes into school curricula. Half of Republicans believe parents should be the most influential, compared to 20 percent of Democrats. Many Republican-sponsored "parental rights" bills reflect these views, requiring schools to post all instructional materials online and to provide parental oversight in other ways.

Regardless of their political party, many adults do not comprehend critical race theory, which conservatives have used as a liberal bogeyman in recent years. Right-wingers have thus distorted the term, using it to refer to any issue about race or equity. Some 15 percent of respondents said they knew enough to explain the term to others. However, half of the respondents had no idea what the term was or had heard it but didn't know what it meant.

Critical race theory was poorly understood even by those who claimed to be familiar with it. Only 16 percent of these participants correctly guessed that colorblindness, which entails treating people equally regardless of skin color, did not fall into critical race theory. According to critical race theory, a clear understanding of race is crucial to eliminating racism.

The USC Rossier School of Education and Dornsife Center surveyed 3,751 households nationwide for the study.