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Public Perceptions of the Future of Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
January 28, 2022

Remote learning, critical race theory, public school curriculums and more have been at the forefront of recent policy debates. As policymakers work to make decisions about these and other education policy issues, polls can provide insight into public opinion.

A return to in-person learning?

Recent findings from the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll found that Virginians were, overall, in agreement regarding negative effects of remote learning that occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing. 79 percent of poll participants felt that remote schooling led to K-12 students falling behind academically, compared to 13 percent who did not think that remote learning had any effect on academic achievement. Only 3 percent said that they thought remote learning helped students to get ahead academically.

The Wilder School Commonwealth Poll Winter 2021-22 was conducted via telephone interviews with a representative sample of 800 adults, ages 18 or older, living in Virginia. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline and cellphone from December 13-30, 2021, with results released in January 2022.

From a health perspective, 60 percent of Virginians felt that attending school remotely had negative health impacts on school-aged children, while 25 percent felt that there were positive health impacts. An additional 10 percent of poll participants felt that remote learning did not have any impact on the health of school-aged children.

Teaching through a critical race lens

In addition, public school curriculum and critical race theory were discussed throughout the gubernatorial campaign and addressed in the Commonwealth Poll. Findings indicated that over 70 percent of Virginians felt that public school curriculum should be developed by parents, teachers and members of the school board working together. 14 percent said only parents should be responsible for developing school curricula, 9 percent said only teachers should be responsible and 5 percent said only school boards should be responsible.

Approximately 75 percent of respondents said that they had heard about critical race theory. When asked if critical race theory should be taught in K-12 public schools in Virginia, 40 percent of respondents said no, it should not be taught; 28 percent said yes, it should be taught; and 30 percent felt that they did not have enough information about critical race theory to make a decision.

However, conversations around critical race theory often raise an important question: Do most people fully understand what critical race theory is, what it means or how concepts from critical race theory may be presented in a classroom? A summer 2021 poll from Reuters/Ipsos found that only 43 percent felt that they were familiar with critical race theory, while about 30 percent said that they had never heard of it. Younger people (those aged 18 – 34) were more likely to be familiar with it than older groups. The poll also found that the majority of Americans were supportive of teaching students in high school about the impacts of slavery and racism in the United States (78 percent and 73 percent, respectively, favored teaching about these impacts). As teaching about slavery and racism was a more popular idea than teaching critical race theory, according to the poll, it’s possible that those who hear the term “critical race theory” may just not understand what it means, rather than being opposed to actually introducing concepts from the theory into lessons.

The charter school debate

Another idea discussed in the Commonwealth Poll is the expansion of and increased funding for charter school access. While some support the idea of charter schools and feel that they allow for more choices and lead to better test scores, others worry that economically disadvantaged families may not have access, and that the quality of charter schools is not easily monitored.

When asked if they were in favor of expanding charter schools, more than half of Virginians (52 percent) said that they would support an increase in the number of charter schools in the state, while 34 percent were opposed to such an increase. As a key component of newly-inaugurated Virginia Governor Youngkin’s education platform, this will likely continue to be a heavily debated topic in Virginia and beyond.

Next steps for policymakers

As these and other debates over our schools continue, policymakers will need to make some challenging decisions. While issues related to education policy can often be contentious, polls such as this can offer insight into how the general public feels. By taking this public opinion into consideration, in addition to the expertise and experience of educators and policymakers, we can work to create policies that are accepted by the public and, most importantly, beneficial for our students.

Author: Brittany Keegan, Ph.D. is the director of research promotion and engagement at the VCU Wilder School’s Office of Research and Outreach. Her research focuses on nonprofit organizations, refugee/immigration policy, and gender-based violence prevention and intervention. Twitter: @BritKeegan

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