Republicans’ confidence in public schools plummeted to an all-time low this year, while Democrats sustained higher levels of support that spiked in 2020 as schools responded to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, new polling finds.
Forty-three percent of Democrats responding to a June poll conducted by Gallup said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot of confidence” in U.S. public schools, compared with 14 percent of Republicans. That number was 29 percent among respondents who identified as Independents. The poll was a nationally representative sample of 1,015 adults collected June 1-20.
Overall, 28 percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools, a decline from 32 percent in 2021.
The findings come as K-12 school and district leaders navigate divisive conversations about addressing issues like how to teach U.S. history and how to address sensitive subjects like race, gender, sexuality, and student safety in classroom discussions and school policies.
Republican politicians have increasingly included those subjects in messaging for November’s mid-term elections. The tensions could create challenges for leaders navigating everything from education policy to family engagement.
The poll asked about public schools alongside other public institutions, like Congress and the military.
Here are three key findings about schools from the Gallup poll.
1. American’s confidence in public schools has declined for decades alongside other institutions
Americans’ confidence in public schools on Gallup’s poll peaked in 1975, two years after the organization began measuring trust in a list of institutions. That year, 62 percent of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools.
Overall confidence in schools has continued a general trend of decline over the years, briefly spiking upward to 41 percent in 2020, when Gallup surveyed respondents a few months after schools suddenly closed in response to COVID-19 concerns, spotlighting the role they play in communities.
Public confidence in schools has declined alongside confidence in other institutions, Gallup found. Public schools had the sixth highest percentage of respondents’ confidence on a list of 16 institutions.
Asked about a menu of options, the highest percentages of respondents expressed confidence in: small business at 68 percent, the military at 64 percent, and police at 45 percent. Institutions with the lowest levels of support were Congress at 7 percent, television news at 11 percent, and big business at 14 percent.
An important caveat: Other surveys, including an annual poll conducted by PDK International and Gallup, have consistently found that higher percentages of Americans approve of their own local public schools than the education system in general. In a 2021 version of the PDK Poll, for example, 63 percent of parents and 54 percent of all adults, gave their local public schools an A or B grade for their pandemic response. In contrast, only 4 in 10 adults gave an A or B grade to public schools’ handling of COVID-19 nationally.
2. A dramatic drop in Republican support for public schools
The percentage of Republican respondents to the Gallup poll who said they had “very little” or “no” trust in public schools rose to its highest level this year, at 50 percent.
The decline comes as activists promote bills that ban teaching of “divisive concepts” and after sometimes-partisan responses to extended school closures during the pandemic.
3. Softer declines among Democrats and Independents
While fewer Democrats and Independents expressed confidence in public schools in this year’s annual poll, the rates of support among those respondents have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.