WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans’ confidence in U.S. public schools remains low, with 28% saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution, similar to 32% last year. Both figures are down from 41% in 2020, reflecting a brief surge in the early months of the pandemic after registering 29% in 2019.
While all political party groups expressed more confidence than usual in public schools in 2020, Republicans’ confidence has since plunged, while independents’ has dipped and Democrats’ has remained near their pandemic high.
The percentage of Republicans having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools fell from 34% in 2020 to 20% in 2021 and 14% today. Since 2020, independents’ confidence has declined nine percentage points to 29% and Democrats’ has remained fairly high — currently 43%, versus 48% in 2020.
Today’s 29-point gap between Republican and Democratic confidence in public schools contrasts with an average seven points since the start of Gallup’s Confidence in Institutions trend in 1973. Except for a 25-point gap last year, the previous high was 19 points in 2013, likely related to partisan disagreement over the Common Core educational standards at the time.
Americans’ confidence in public schools is measured as part of Gallup’s annual survey assessing public confidence in a number of national institutions, with the latest update conducted June 1-20.
Half of Republicans Now Have Little to No Faith in Schools
The extent of Republicans’ displeasure with education today is further evident in the sharp increase in those expressing very little or no confidence in public schools. Half of Republicans are now this critical, up 19 points from 31% in 2019.
Republicans’ confidence in public schools has been trending down for decades, and it tends to be lower at times when a Democrat is serving as president than when a Republican is in office. However, the 12-point drop in Republicans’ average level of confidence in public schools between Donald Trump’s presidency (29%) and under President Joe Biden’s (17%) is greater than would be predicted by those factors alone.
Republicans’ recent souring on education was also evident in Gallup’s January Mood of the Nation poll, when the percentage of Republicans satisfied with “the quality of public education in the nation” registered just 20%, down 17 points from the prior year. And it was evident in last year’s Work and Education poll, conducted each August, which showed Republicans’ satisfaction with the quality of education children in grades K-12 receive falling from 51% in 2019 to 34% in 2021.
Americans’ Confidence in U.S. Public Schools Near All-Time Low
Republicans’ and Democrats’ diverging confidence in public schools has kept overall confidence in public schools, nationally, low these past two years, roughly consistent with the 29% to 32% range recorded most years since 2012. While today’s 28% is below the average 31% seen since 2012, it is slightly above the all-time low of 26% measured in 2014.
Closer to 40% of Americans were confident in public schools most years from 1989 to 2006. Before that, half or more said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence, except for a short period from 1981 to 1983 when confidence dipped lower.
Confidence in public schools is not related to parental status, as 29% of adults with a child younger than 18 have high confidence in the institution, similar to the 28% found among non-parents. Although confidence in schools has become increasingly polarized by political party in recent years, it is similar by gender, age and region of the country.
Americans’ confidence in public schools increased early in the coronavirus pandemic as people rallied around professions that were severely disrupted by the economic shutdown, but that subsided a year ago and confidence has returned to its pre-pandemic level.
At the same time, public education has become more politicized, with Republicans more opposed than Democrats to distance learning and student face mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Debate has also erupted at the national and local levels over school curricula touching on racism, gender theory and sexual orientation. Republican-sponsored legislation being passed or debated in numerous states to curtail such curricula has kept these issues at the forefront of party politics, with Florida providing the most prominent example. A law took effect there this month that prohibits some classroom instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
While Republicans express low confidence in U.S. public schools, education is not on their minds when asked to name the most important problem facing the country — only 1% of Republicans in June named education in answer to this open-ended question. Thus, it remains to be seen if concerns about education spur Republicans to the polls in November — or if other issues, from inflation to abortion to guns, are more prominent in influencing whether and how people vote.