Collective Illusions Cloud a Set of Practical K-12 Governing Ideas
In recent years, culture wars have engulfed K-12 education. On issues ranging from teaching history and critical race theory (CRT) to parental oversight of curriculum and matters of gender identity, it seems Americans are more divided and disagreeable than ever when it comes to what we want from our schools.
But this perception is a “collective illusion”—a false narrative that diverts attention from a stubborn reality. As an examination of 2022 voter behaviors and gubernatorial candidates shows, most Americans, in fact, agree on a shared collection of practical education issues.
This consensus offers a K-12 governing agenda for the nation’s governors. The two most prominent issues for the majority of Americans are expanding career and technical education (CTE) and increasing school funding. Still, others include boosting childcare and early learning, raising teacher pay, and providing families and students with more educational options.
Of course, partisan lines can be traced through all these issues if one looks hard enough. But rather than persisting in the collective illusion of irreconcilable disagreement, we should instead recognize the education landscape’s ideological heartland, a term coined by the American Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Streeter.
The “ideological heartland” describes a state of mind rather than a physical location. It’s the place where domestic realists live. These domestic realists are not given to ideological political extremes. They may lean left or right or be part of that forgotten group called moderates, but they care more for practical action than culture war posturing.
Believe it or not, roughly two-thirds of Americans live in this ideological heartland—though the false narrative about deeply entrenched disagreement on K-12 issues might lead us to think otherwise. In comparison, less than a quarter of Americans are staunch progressives or conservatives living at the edges of the political spectrum, immersed in the culture wars.
As Anthony Fowler, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, writes, “The American public is not nearly as partisan or polarized as you’ve been told …most Americans…on most issues [are] somewhere in the middle.”
This is not to say that domestic realists always disagree with the rabble-rousers on the hot-button issue positions that occupy the fringe. They are just less intense with their beliefs, saying they favor or oppose a stance on an issue rather than “strongly” favor or oppose it. Domestic realists believe they can disagree with others and live in relative harmony without waging ideological warfare.
Three recent analyses of voters’ opinions and governors’ statements display broad agreement among domestic realists on a set of K-12 governing ideas. But the broad understanding in the ideological heartland does not bespeak uniformity. Even given some consensus, the give-and-take of crafting and negotiating state legislative proposals will produce programs and priorities that differ by state. But this varied approach affirms America’s long-standing tradition of federalism, where states are laboratories of democracy and community efforts to implement ideas foster a robust civil society.
The first analysis of K-12 issues comes from bipartisan polling of 1,200 midterm voters, plus another 600 battleground state voters from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Two themes stand out from this polling, which also identifies four issues on which 2022 voters agree.
First, voters say K-12 is a top 2023 issue, and schools are on the wrong track.
Over three in four (76%) general voters say “improving the economy and job situation” is their top 2023 priority for state lawmakers, followed closely by “improving K-12 education” (72%). The most important priority in battleground states is “improving K-12 education.” Over six in ten (63%) general voters say they will cross party lines to vote for a party they have not supported based on its education position.
Half of the general voters (51%) and nearly two-thirds (60%) of parent voters say state public schools are “on the wrong track.” Nearly half of general voters (48%) and parent voters (49%) say local public schools are “on the wrong track.” Three in four (75%) believe students are mostly still behind in school.
Second, voters want more parental control, agree on priorities, and generally endorse creating more education options.
Over two in three (64%) general voters believe “parents should have more control … right now” over what public schools teach. Republicans (93%), Independents (70%), and parents (70%) agree, though more than two in three (64%) Democrats disagree. Nearly half (46%) say schools need to make “bold changes and adopt new ways of doing things” to get students on track.
More than three in four general voters across parties—including in battleground states—say four issues from a list of twelve are “very important”: ensuring every child is on track (86%); hiring and retaining high-quality teachers (81%); offering more career education and real-world learning (75%); and improving school security and safety (74%).
A majority (53%) supports increasing existing budgets for schools if funds follow students to “where they receive their education,” though nearly seven in ten (68%) Democrats oppose this approach. Almost seven in ten (69%) general voters, including a majority (51%) of Democrats, support creating more school options, including charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling.
A second source capturing the ideological heartland is an analysis of the K-12 agendas of 2022 gubernatorial candidates by the Manhattan Institute’s Andy Smarick. Among the seventy-two gubernatorial candidates, a shared set of education priorities emerged. At least 25% of all the candidates agreed on six issues out of twenty-seven issue categories, with two tied for first place: expanding CTE programs and increasing school funding, endorsed by thirty of the seventy-two candidates, or 42% of them. The other four top issues were school choice (24 candidates; 33%); expanding pre-K (22 candidates; 31%); raising teacher pay (19 candidates; 26%); and curricular reforms (19 candidates; 26%).
Along similar lines, in an issue analysis of the 2023 gubernatorial state of the state addresses, the Education Commission of the States found that CTE, teaching quality, and school finance ranked “among the most popular” K-12 issues the governors mentioned. A majority of governors also voiced support for early learning and child care. Other “hot topics this year” included student health, school choice, and safety.
These three analyses show a basis of general agreement among voters and the nation’s governors on a set of K-12 issues, with expanding CTE and school funding at the top of nearly everyone’s issue list. Domestic realist leaders thus have an opportunity to mobilize a K-12 stakeholder coalition on legislative programs linked to these “heartland” issues.
With Republicans in 22 states and Democrats in 17 states controlling the governorship and both state houses—the trifecta of single-party government—legislative specifics will vary based on party affiliation and voter preferences. But this political diversity gives state policymakers and local civic entrepreneurs the freedom to meet state needs and local circumstances.
For example, more school funding in one state may mean increasing teacher pay. In another state, it may mean starting or expanding childcare and early learning programs. A third state may create education savings accounts that parents can use for private school tuition or purchasing supplemental tutoring for a child in traditional district public schools. Still, another state may use more funding for several purposes, as is being suggested in Oklahoma—where a new legislative proposal would allow parents to claim up to $5,000 in annual credits for tuition, tutoring, and curriculum expenses for a child enrolled in private school and $2,500 for homeschooled children, while also providing $500 million in additional grants, salary increases, and other funding for traditional public schools.
This implementation of pluralism follows the American federalist tradition. It allows states and local communities to be laboratories of democracy to test and refine laws and policies over time. In the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel societal and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with educational options and outcomes in America today, we must seize this opportunity for coalition-building in the ideological heartland. And that means it is time to overcome our collective illusions. We can forge a new K-12 political coalition of domestic realists. Why? Because we do, in fact, have a practical set of governing ideas based on everyday concerns shared by most Americans.
Bruno V. Manno
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation education program and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.