Americans are satisfied in particular, but mad in general. That’s the finding of a new poll on education by NPR and Ipsos. Consistent with other recent studies, the survey found majorities of parents approve of the schools their children attend, but worry about the condition of education around the country.
The gap between people’s assessment of their own experiences and their broader judgments isn’t limited to education. Political scientists invoke “Fenno’s Paradox” — the observation that voters approve of their own representative while disapproving of Congress. Although it seems counterintuitive, the explanation isn’t hard to grasp. Members of Congress work hard to understand and satisfy the preferences of their own constituents, whose support they need for reelection. They have weaker incentives to cooperate with other members of Congress in order to promote a coherent national agenda, encouraging the conclusion that Congress as a whole is gridlocked and dysfunctional.
Schools operate in a similar way. We speak of a national education system. But there are really 50 state systems (plus sundry territories), divided into nearly 14,000 semi-independent districts, which oversee over 130,000 individual schools. Because those schools answer to elected school boards or other local officials, which are themselves subject to oversight by legislatures and statewide executive officers, they tend to respond to the people they serve. And not all students attend local district schools. Charter schools, private school, and home schools give families more choice of overall approach — and sometimes more direct influence over what’s taught.
As with Congress, the result is a messy compromise that allows many parents to get what they want in their own children’s schools, but makes it hard for them to influence what happens elsewhere. The inherent frustration is heightened by social media, which make it easy to circulate oversights and outrages far beyond the jurisdictions where they’re actually relevant. That’s how curricular decisions in obscure corners of Tennessee become national news stories.
The disconnect between local conditions and national perceptions makes it tempting to dismiss systemic concerns as irrelevant. That’s likely to be the spin from progressives, who want to dismiss concerns about instruction related to American history, race, and sex as an evanescent moral panic. In fact, the poll finds that majorities or pluralities of parents feel that instruction on most of these issues reflects their values.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss the anger on display in many states and localities where curriculum controversies have broken out. Precisely because education politics is so localized, concentrated discontent is very powerful. If voters in a particular jurisdiction are angry, it doesn’t matter whether their views are consistent with nationwide aggregates. They’re likely to get their way in the institutions that answer to them.
Second, local opinion and national opinion are often correlated. In other words, even if people think local conditions are better than national conditions, the assessments tend to move up and down together. For that reason, rising dissatisfaction with education overall suggests there’s more turmoil to come even where school politics are relatively placid.
Finally, defenders of the status quo should worry about the large cohort of parents who report that they don’t know whether the instruction their children receive is consistent with their values. In the NPR/Ipsos poll, that group is the plurality when it comes to issues of gender and sexual identity, where just 27% report satisfaction. Schools and districts that want to avoid the kind of controversy that’s embroiled Florida need to reassure their publics that they have nothing to hide. Prominent Democrats’ habit of suggesting that teachers have equal or greater authority to parents are not reassuring — and probably had electoral consequences in Virginia.
Like Fenno’s Paradox, then, the results of this poll are an invitation to complacency. Facing dire electoral prospects, Democrats and progressives have every reason to wish that local and national opinion could be neatly severed. But generally strong support for local incumbents hasn’t prevented the parties from regularly swapping control of Congress in the 21st century. Education is unlikely to escape that instability.