Researchers called the outcome of these conflicts "deeply problematic."
Public schools are a space to learn and discuss ideas but lately, they've become a battleground where political conflicts have intensified.
"Sometimes, it's parents just raising questions, but sometimes, it has a violent tinge to it," said John Rogers, a professor of education and director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA.)
"We've seen brawls breaking out outside of elementary schools," said Rogers. His research shows that more and more political rhetoric is seeping into schools. Rogers identifies a few inflection points: the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the 2020 global uprising following the police murder of George Floyd. "Many school districts issued statements about the importance of addressing racism. Many school boards did the same," he said. "In the wake of that, some conservative activists decided to target public schools."
According to research by UCLA and UC Riverside, more than two thirds of public high school principals surveyed across the country last summer, reported substantial political conflict, and it's more pervasive in politically contested or "purple" communities. "Districts that had gone through a large amount of demographic change, that they had lost a substantial proportion of their white student population over the last 20 years," said Rogers.
Many reported parents or community members sought to limit or challenge teaching about issues of race and racism, policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ student rights, and student access to books in the school library. "We had a number of principals report that parents and other community members made threats to them or threats at school board meetings," said Rogers.
One California principal in a purple community quoted in their research said their school faced protests fueled by COVID-19 conspiracy theories, adding in part, "One of the parents was concerning to me personally, with his vitriol and his anger and calling me a "liberal communist moron."
Rogers called the outcome of these conflicts "deeply problematic." For example, he said some teachers are becoming wary of talking about slavery. "Principals report that in public schools, oftentimes, teachers are fearful of teaching the full history, they report that some teachers are thinking about leaving the profession at a time when we're having teacher shortages," Rogers said.
Temecula in Riverside County is one of the communities where political conflicts over LGBTQIA+ education and Critical Race Theory have played out. "When you're trying to be on and present a high academic expectation environment, and then you walk out and people are telling you like, 'Well, no, what you're doing is indoctrination. What you're doing is sexualization. What you're doing is inappropriate.' You don't feel like you come out of the day rewarded and successful. You just feel like you're being attacked," said Edgar Diaz, president of the Temecula Valley Educators Association. "And at the very end of the day, people are calling you out for something you haven't done."
A follow up survey focused on principals in California. "In California, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of students who have been making racist comments about their classmates," said Rogers.
78% of California high school principals surveyed reported their students made hostile or demeaning remarks to LGBTQ+ classmates. "This sort of behavior makes public schools less safe, less welcoming of all young people, and it undermines the learning that's so important for us all," Rogers said.
Researchers found that compared to national trends, educators in California may respond differently to political conflict. In some cases, they are equally or more likely to offer support for diverse racial or ethnic education and LGBTQ+ student rights. A possible explanation is California's policies signaling the value of these practices, the report stated.
Rogers said it's critically important for educators to have these conversations. "So that they can feel like they have the support of the broader community to do the difficult work of empowering young people to be better than we are now as adults at talking about complex issues amongst people that disagree," he said.