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Are culture war concerns over schools overblown? A Utah parent survey offers clues

The Utah State Board of Education building in Salt Lake City.
Rocio Hernandez
The Utah State Board of Education building in Salt Lake City.

Parents around the country are mostly happy with their kids’ schools, according to a recent poll from NPR and Ipsos. Despite the national fervor around issues like Critical Race Theory and gender identity, most parents are more concerned with student well-being and academic progress.

School boards in Utah have had their share of complaints from parents – voicing concerns that certain books are inappropriate or some lessons make students focus too much on race.

The one question many education advocates have had, though, is how representative are those views?

In Utah, one of the biggest peeks into parents’ perceptions comes from the School Climate Report, which was conducted for the first time by the Utah State Board of Education last year. Nearly 64,000 parents were polled.

The vast majority — 91% — have a positive view of the school their children are attending.

“If you've got 60,000 responses to your survey, you are golden in terms of being able to say, yes, this is reflective of what [parents are] thinking and what they're experiencing,” said Brooke Anderson, a data specialist in the Jordan School District.

While the survey doesn’t ask specific questions about how schools tackle controversial topics, similar to the NPR poll, Anderson said it does seem to show that most parents are satisfied with what’s happening in their schools.

Parents identified bullying as the most common issue facing students, followed by tobacco use and vaping. Most also said they feel welcome at their schools and that teachers and staff actively encourage their participation.

“I think that's what gets represented in these parent surveys is that parents notice that schools are going forward and doing their best for students despite all of this other stuff going on,” she said.

The caveat to the data is that it was taken at the end of the last school year when many of the culture war issues were taking shape.

A lot has changed since then, said Aaron Brough, data and statistics coordinator with USBE. And to really understand attitudes around political issues, there would likely need to be a more direct survey conducted by an independent third party.

With their limited resources, Brough said research done at the state level is mostly focused on how effective various school programs are, such as the impacts of extended-day kindergarten or early warning systems that identify students who are struggling.

“Those are the critical questions — how well are we helping the students get to where they need to be?” he said. “And when there are a percentage of students who don’t get there, how well do the teachers serve those students?”

USBE officials said the survey data is being used to identify improvement areas and as a baseline to measure future progress in how parents, students and teachers perceive school environments.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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