Who should decide what's included in K-12 public school curriculums?

Abby McVayResearch Analyst
Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
May 08, 2023, 12:08 PM GMT+0

Earlier this year, a poll by The Economist and YouGov found that among seven entities involved in education, Americans are most likely to say that parents should have "a lot" of authority over the history curriculum for K-12 students in their state. But what does it mean for parents to have authority over a school's curriculum? And outside of parents, who do Americans think should be the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to the material students learn in public schools? Our latest poll explores these questions, finding that Americans generally favor exempting a single student from material that the student's parents object to, but are more likely to opt for the complete removal of material in cases where all parents of students in a class object. In cases where half of parents object, more favor removing the material or exempting students than leaving it in.

How should parents and schools respond to objections regarding the curriculum?

An Economist/YouGov poll from February asked Americans to respond in their own words to the question, "How should parents' feedback be incorporated into the K-12 curriculum?" In their answers, several respondents suggested allowing parents to vote on content in the curriculum, while others offered the idea of exempting students whose parents object. Some people said that parents who object should send their children to learn elsewhere. Our latest survey considered how Americans respond to these possibilities in a variety of contexts.

What should a parent who objects to material included in public school curriculums do? Americans are divided between two options, with slightly more saying parents "should attempt to get the school to change its curriculum" (42%) than saying they "should send their child to a different school or homeschool them" (37%). Just 4% say they should do nothing. By 44% to 31%, Democrats say parents should send their child to a different school rather than attempt to get their current school to change what it teaches. Just 32% of Republicans support sending children to another school while 56% back attempts to change the current school's curriculum.

The survey also included three versions of a thought experiment in which parents of one or more students in a public K-12 classroom object to their children being taught certain material included in the school's standard curriculum.

In the first version of the question, just one student in the class has parents who object to the material. In this case, 47% of Americans say the school should excuse the student from being taught the material his or her parents objected to, while 29% said the school should leave the material in the curriculum despite their objection, and 11% said the material should be removed from the curriculum entirely.

In the next version of the question, half of the students' parents object. Here, more people say the objectionable material should be removed (28%) than say it should be left (21%); 32% say there should be an exception for the half of the class whose parents object.

In the final version of the question, the parents' views are unanimous: All object to the material taught in the class. In this scenario, excusing students wasn't an option since that would leave an empty classroom. Here, Americans are more than twice as likely to side with parents as to not in this scenario, with 57% backing removal of the material and just 23% saying the material should be left in.

Who should decide the curriculum taught in K-12 public schools?

Americans have different opinions about who — other than parents — should ultimately be responsible for making decisions about the curriculum taught in K-12 public schools. When asked what entity should be responsible for making decisions about school curriculum, 36% thought it should be some level of government: federal (11%), state (16%), or local (9%). The rest said it should be either the school district (25%), itself part of the government; the school administration (16%); or the teacher (8%).

Parents of children in K-12 schools are more likely than people without K-12 children to say the local government or teacher should be the decision maker, and less likely to say it should be the school district. Parents of K-12 students are far from united on the question, with nearly equal shares supporting all six options provided for curricular control. Younger adults in general are far less in favor than older adults of giving control to school districts, and are instead more likely to support the federal government as the ultimate decision-maker.

Democrats are most likely to favor giving authority to the school district (20%) or school administration (19%). Not far behind, though, are the federal (16%) and state governments (15%). Republicans also are most likely to favor school districts (27%) having the final say, though not far behind is the state government (21%). Few support giving control to the federal (9%) or local government (10%).


— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on April 13 - 20, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 3%.

Image: Adobe Stock (Gorodenkoff)

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