Over 14,000 school boards, with about 100,000 members, set the course for instruction in classrooms across the country. To understand the views of parents and school board members in debates about K-12 content and policy, The Heritage Foundation commissioned a nationally representative survey.

The survey covered views on civics education, school discipline, and character- and values-based instruction. Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss.

We also cover these stories:

  • President Joe Biden signs 17 executive orders, directives, or memorandums hours after being sworn into office Wednesday, aiming to undo much of Donald Trump’s legacy as president. 
  • The outgoing president and first lady depart the White House without meeting the Bidens, with Trump speaking to staff and other supporters at Joint Base Andrews before flying to Florida. 
  • Recipients of Trump’s dozens of pardons on his final day in office include former White House adviser Steve Bannon and two rappers, Lil Wayne and Kodak Black.

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Lindsey, it’s great to have you back on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Lindsey Burke: Thanks so much for having me back. Happy to be here.

Del Guidice: Well, it’s great to have you with us. The Heritage Foundation commissioned a nationally representative survey to understand the views of parents and school board members on current debates about content and policy in K-12 schools. So, Lindsey, can you just start off by telling us about the survey?

Burke: Yeah. We were really excited to do this survey to get a better sense of what both parents and school board members, which I think makes this unique in a lot of respects, think about the content and the policies that are being promulgated in K-12 public schools across the country today.

So we partnered with Braun Research, which is an outside survey firm, to conduct this nationally representative survey.

We had 1,001 parents who responded to the survey, which is great. We had a 22% response rate on the part of our parent participants. And then we did a sub-sample of school board members across the country, and we had 566 school board members participate in the survey.

So we were able to get a really good sense of what families think about the content taught in public schools, about what school board members think, and school board members are so instrumental in determining a lot of that content and a lot of those policies. And then we were also able to get a sense of where families and school board members opinions might differ a little bit.

Del Guidice: Well, before we delve more into the survey, what did you find out just generally about the kind of power school boards have over education?

Burke: Yeah, that’s a great question. School boards have a lot of power over education, and I think that they are frequently overlooked.

There are roughly 14,000 school boards across the country and about 100,000 school board members, and 95% of the school board members are elected to their positions. Actually, they represent the largest group of elected officials in the country.

There’s 100,000 school board members. So it’s a huge group of elected officials and they determine the shape and the content of school curriculum in their districts and hold the key to how a lot of issues are handled within the borders of their districts.

They determine things like superintendent pay and school bus routes and school schedules, in addition to those really important things like curriculum and textbook adoption.

Del Guidice: Well, the survey questions and findings were grouped into three overarching categories. And the first one of those three categories was the 1619 Project and civics education. Lindsey, can you tell us about what you found there with that first category?

Burke: Yeah. So this was, I think, one of the issues that really initially drove our desire to do this survey, the 1619 Project. This is something that The New York Times published in 2019, really has gotten a lot of ink.

There have been just a lot of eyeballs on the 1619 Project over the past year, two years almost now. That is in part because the goal of that project self-described was to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our country’s foundational date.

So moving away from this idea that America was really founded, as we know it, in 1776 and trying to change the sort of national dialogue around that to situate our founding year as 1619. And so, that’s something that has gained a lot of traction.

Four thousand five hundred classrooms across the country have adopted the 1619 Project. And so, the extent to which this project is making its way into classrooms across the country, and then an overall sense that we have—which we wanted to confirm in a way—that parents, families have some concern about the state of civics education in America in particular, those two issues really drove our desire to do this survey.

So we did, we grouped into three buckets—1619 Project, we also surveyed about character education, and then other issues like sexual orientation and gender identities that are taught in school in the survey. So we grouped those three areas together.

And so when we started off the survey, we asked first, we asked families about their feelings about the 1619 Project and about civics education. And of course we asked these same questions to school board members as well.

What we found was that parents are generally satisfied with the civics instructions delivered in K-12 schools. And that finding really held across demographic groups.

What was notable was that school board members largely disagreed. Nearly two-thirds of our school board member respondents believed that schools do not provide enough instruction in civics. So that was one of those areas where there was a disconnect between where parents are and where school board members are.

And then parents and school board members really did have pretty mixed feelings about … sort of those revisions of history that we’re seeing with the 1619 Project. And so that was another area that was of interest to us, was to see how those families and school board members felt about the 1619 Project.

Fifty percent of all parents and 70% of all school board members in our survey said that they do not want schools to use instructional material that is based on the idea that slavery is the center of our national narrative, which the 1619 Project does.

There were a lot of other findings on those particular areas on 1619 and civics education. And so we have a lot more of that in the survey, but those were a few of the things that really jumped out to me.

And I’ll say one more thing on that. Just 25% of parents, just a quarter of parents, and only 17% of school board members believed that students should be taught that the founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written and that American history should be reframed.

So that I think was another really important finding because what we see parents and school board members express in this survey, again, nationally representative survey, was very much in disagreement with some of the ideas that are espoused in these rewrites of history that we’re seeing.

Del Guidice: The second category, Lindsey, as you mentioned, was that of a success sequence in restorative justice. Can you talk about what was found here?

Burke: So, character education and the success sequence were two of the really, really, I think, bright spots in the survey. This is where we saw really positive responses on the part of both families and school board members. A couple of examples there.

Most parents believe that character and virtues should be cornerstones of education in America. And we see that because about 83%, so more than 8 in 10, [of] parents want schools to instill character and virtue in children. And that was another one of those findings that held across demographic groups.

And 89%, nearly 9 in 10, [of] school board members believe that schools should teach character and virtue education. And so that was a really interesting finding.

Some of the strongest levels of support for any of the policies that we surveyed was on something called the success sequence. And the success sequence, if you’re not familiar with it, is a term that has been coined for the research that demonstrates that graduating high school, getting a job, and getting married before having children significantly reduces the likelihood of an individual ending up in poverty.

What we sought to do in the survey was basically ask about this idea, should schools explicitly teach the success sequence? And among parents, 72% believe that schools should do that, that they should explicitly teach children that that success sequence, if you follow it, likely means you will avoid poverty. And 60% of school board members agreed with that as well.

So that was a really, I think, positive and notable finding and shows that there truly is an appetite among families for public schools to engage in character and virtue development and even things like the success sequence.

Del Guidice: Well, the third category was sexual orientation and gender identity and the life issues in schools. Can you talk about what was found in this category as well?

Burke: Yeah. This is another category that we wanted to look at because we do see a lot of policies promulgated or attempted to be promulgated in schools around these issues, these SOGI issues. And so we wanted to ask some questions explicitly getting at how parents and school board members feel about this.

So parents, a couple of the big findings there, 66% of parents and 80% of school board members, 8 out of 10, do not believe that schools should teach young children in kindergarten and elementary school about sexual activity, sexual orientation, and gender identity issues. So these are younger students, certainly.

The other thing that stood out was although public school districts, some have policies that prevent school staff from disclosing information about a child’s gender identity to families—so the districts will say to a school, “You cannot disclose to a family information about your child’s gender identity”—70% of parents and 60% of school boards believe that schools should indeed inform parents if their child identifies as transgender or has questions relating to his or her gender identity.

We got into other questions as well around life issues. In this category, there was more support, 61% of parents, 68% of school board members, for providing students with information about contraception, for schools doing that. But both of these groups drew the line at abortion.

Sixty-two percent of parents and 70% of school board members do not believe that schools should provide students with information on how to access an abortion.

So, that was a really important finding that while they may be OK to some extent with information on contraception, they draw the line very clearly at giving students information about how to access an abortion.

And I will just quickly say on the methodology for this survey, I think it’s important to be certainly transparent on the respondents. While the parent portion was nationally representative, it was equal across all demographic groups aligned with all the census data that are out there, the school board member portion did skew a little older and it skewed a little more Southern.

So I do think that’s an important caveat to keep in the back of our minds as we’re looking at some of these survey findings.

Del Guidice: Thank you for sharing that. So, Lindsey, from a broader perspective, given these three categories that we just discussed, can you talk about what your perspective is on how parents and school board members are just viewing these current debates that are being discussed right now in K-12 content and policy?

Burke: Yeah. Well, I think, first, on some of the civics content, like I said at the beginning, this is really on the hearts and minds of parents across the country, and all Americans, I think, quite frankly, are interested in seeing genuine civics instruction in schools and a real restoration of how we teach genuine civics education and love of country, basic ideas about how the government functions, etc.

There does seem to be a sense that we’ve moved away from that and we need to sort of get back to basics in terms of civics instruction. And I think a lot of our findings in this survey reinforced that idea.

I also think what’s really interesting is on some of these questions about values-based instruction and character development, the findings from our survey suggests, I think, that public schools should not shy away from talking to students about these things, talking about things like the success sequence.

There is no such thing as a values-neutral school. Even the things that schools choose not to talk about signal some sort of value judgment on their part.

Families want their children to know the data about different life choices that are out there and schools can provide that data to students in a way that really does empower them. I think that’s important.

I think that will equip students with the really critical information they need about the choices that they can make to help or the choices they can make to impede their climb up that ladder of upward economic mobility.

And so I think all of these survey findings really enforced that idea. And look, I mean, to me, even though I sound like a broken record, but I also think a lot of this reinforces the need for school choice.

Like I said, schools are not values-neutral institutions and families should have the ability and the option to select … learning environments that are the right fit for their children and that reflect their values and aspirations and hopes for their children.

Del Guidice: Lindsey, can you talk a little bit about how policymakers can make it easier for parents to select schools that reflect their values and goals for their children? I know you did mention school choice. And so, are you able to expound on how policy members can play a role in expanding choice?

Burke: Yeah. So, choice, to my mind, is the No. 1 goal that policymakers should be working toward, at least in the K-12 education policy space, at the state level in particular.

States should be moving, and the pandemic has made this more clear than ever, toward funding students rather than systems.

And the way that they can do that, there are lots of ways—writing vouchers, tax credit scholarships. But the way that has really provided the most flexibility to families is through education savings accounts. We’re seeing more and more states move in this direction.

ESAs fund families directly. They give them a portion of the money that would have been spent on their child in the public school, and they can then use that at not only any school of choice, but any learning option of choice, any private tutor, online learning. They can buy curricula and the special education services and therapies if they need it.

So ESAs really provide that maximum level of flexibility to families. And that, I think, is the way to go. And as we’re seeing more and more states adopt education choice measures, they’re largely going the direction of education savings accounts.

But I would also say it’s not just choice that needs to be a part of the conversation. I think it’s the most important part, but when we’re talking about the content that’s taught in schools across the country, in public schools in particular, there are other things that state policymakers can do.

States should require public school districts to be transparent about school curricula and textbooks and all of the related materials that they’re using. State lawmakers should require public schools to make that curriculum material available for public review, immediately available to parents when they ask.

So I think that curriculum transparency piece is really, really critical and a really important combination with school choice measures.

And I guess the last thing I would say on that, school board elections, there’s a role here for families to play as well with their school boards, to show up at school board meetings, to talk to your school board members, to know what’s in the budget, to craft questions for school board members, to ask them about the textbooks and curriculum that they’re using.

So being involved with your school board, your PTA, those local-level governance entities is really important.

Del Guidice: On that note, Lindsey, you’ve kind of addressed this, … but are there any other ways parents in particular can make their voices heard at the local school board level? I know you mentioned getting involved in those elections, but are there any other ways you’d like to highlight where parents can be involved?

Burke: I think parents can set up all kinds of different groups.

We often maybe overlook things like setting up Facebook groups, but being involved on social media and setting up parent groups has been a really important way and a really great tool for families to communicate about lots of different education-related issues, not only the content that is taught in their schools, sharing information that they have on textbooks and sort of the found curriculum that teachers are using, but also look within school choice programs, right? Sharing best practices there within ESA options, talking about what tutors work really well for them. And of course, right now, when we’re in the pandemic pod era, being able to share information about that as well.

So setting up those local parent groups on Facebook and other social media outlets is, I think, a really, really good way to get involved, in addition to identifying those local school board meetings to attend throughout the year and just sort of staying abreast of school board activities, all of that is really important.

Del Guidice: And then lastly, Lindsey, where do you see opportunities for reform in school boards across this country?

Burke: There are a lot of opportunities there. One, I think of the irony in education policy history, that a hundred years ago, in the early 20th century when Progressive-Era reformers were trying to remove politics from education, they decided to move school board elections to make them off-year elections to not be aligned with general elections.

I say that’s ironic because that meant that turnout was really low. Stanford’s Terry Moe puts it at around 10% in any given year, turnout for school board elections. And so what that has meant is that special interest groups, namely the teachers unions, are able to really dominate a lot of the narrative around those cycles.

And so that’s something else I think for families to be aware of and I think underscores the need for families to really be involved with their school boards.

Like I said, there are 100,000 school board members across the country. That’s the largest group of elected officials in America. So there’s a lot of opportunity there, I think, to really get involved, understand the decision-making process, what your local school board is involved in, everything from curricula to drawing your attendance zone boundaries and really making your voice heard.

Del Guidice: Well, Lindsey, thank you so much for joining us today on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s always great having you with us.

Burke: Thank you for having me.