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Divisive politics hurting public schools, California educators say

Poetry, Robert Frost said, makes you remember — what you didn’t know you knew.

Which, in many ways mirrors the findings of a study on life in America’s public schools released this week by two education professors from America’s Melting Pot of California.

“Educating for a Diverse Democracy: The Chilling Role of Political Conflict in Blue, Purple and Red Communities,” is the name of that report generated by John Rogers and Joseph Kahne.

Rogers is an education professor at UCLA and Kahne teaches that subject at the University of California-Riverside.

They interviewed 682 high school principals from across the nation for the study.

Administrators told them, in effect, what they already knew: That the hyper-partisan political conflict spilling over to classrooms and school board meetings is grinding intellectual discourse to a wrenching stop.

“I’m not talking about parents voicing their opinions,” Kahne said.

“Hostile and threatening statements are being made,” the professor continued. “Those sorts of dynamics actually make it harder for schools to do what they need to do to prepare young people.”

Both authors of the study said that’s because school administrators everywhere are trying to sidestep egg shells in a field of vitriol — while America, collectively, is getting more and more frustrated in days, they said, that couldn’t be more divisive.

Some of their findings:

There was the principal of a high school in a white, rural community in Minnesota who said his superintendent told him to direct his teachers away from lesson plans and class discussions hitting on race and bias.

That’s because the superintendent feared the politics would splash back on the district in an election year.

Another principal of a high school in Iowa reported one group of parents making repeated demands for the removal of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — Harper Lee’s novel of race and race relations in the Jim Crow South — from the shelves of the school library.

The respondents were kept anonymous for the study.

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Meanwhile, of the 682 school principals surveyed, 69% reported “substantial conflict,” the authors said, over issues of politics and sexual orientation in particular.

That includes the 50% who said parents and community members who sought “to limit or challenge” teaching about race and racism — and the 48% who did the same, regarding policies and practices geared to the rights of LBGTQ+ students.

In Monongalia County’s school district, the latter lifted its collective voice after a district directive this fall to remove Gay Pride flags — and any other symbol touting a specific ideology — from all classrooms in the weeks leading up to Election Day last month.

While the district said the idea was to eliminate anything that smacked of indoctrination, students from the LBGTQ+ community and their supporters bristled at the move, saying that a flag or decal on a bulletin board signifies a safe place.

For them, they said — they already know what they know.

“Take away that flag,” one student said at a board meeting, “and what’s next?”

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