Students in classroom, reading book, with parent, and COVID vaccine

Maryland residents remain staunchly in favor of public schools playing a role in informing students about the profound effects of racism in American society, according to new statewide polling, even as Republicans across the nation have railed against teaching about structural racism in public schools.

The poll, a partnership between Goucher College Poll, The Baltimore Banner and WYPR, found that 68% of respondents believe schools should teach about how racism exists in society and its institutions but 27% disagreed. While a larger percentage of Black respondents, 83%, agreed with the statement, a majority of the white respondents, 60%, also expressed support. Voters were split along party lines, however, with 88% of Democrats and 64% of independents saying the issues should be taught while just 39% of Republicans agreed.

“What is so interesting is that geographically we are a Southern state but we are much more centrist state,” said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.

But the poll suggests Maryland’s more moderate electorate feels differently than residents of other states, where anger against pandemic-related school closures was then turned against lessons about race and efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in schools.

A small but vocal group of parents exploded on Facebook and began lobbying their local school boards to reopen after a year of online learning, chastising the teachers unions they said had upended their lives.

Gordana Schifanelli, the lieutenant governor candidate running with Dan Cox, rose to political prominence organizing on behalf of more conservative school board candidates in Queen Anne’s County elections. She supports banning books about immigrants and gender, opposes masking and sees a Marxist ideology influencing schools. She took her efforts to Howard and Baltimore counties last summer and fall, saying parents should take back their local school boards from the “evil” that is seeping into them.

In some districts, conservative school board candidates supporting similar positions survived the primary and are competing in November’s general election, including in Baltimore County.

But the poll shows that viewpoint is clearly not the majority.

“There has been pushback by Democrats,” said Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics. “They argue it is teaching about the reality of our institutions and our history.”

One symbol of that fight is critical race theory, the legal theory focused on the ways racism and bias are embedded in U.S. law. It is not taught in Maryland public schools — and rarely in any public schools. Nationally, however, conservative activists and politicians have used the term as a catch-all for the teaching of race and American history.

When asked if they agree with the statement that Maryland schools currently teach critical race theory, the majority of those polled said they do not agree, including 57% of Republicans. Forty-one percent of Democrats and 38% of independents polled said they did not think critical race theory was being taught.

A large percentage of people said they did not know the answer.

“Maryland does not teach it. I don’t think people understand what it is. It became a political agenda,” said Tiffany Dial, a public school mental health provider who lives in Lanham. “I think there is a way to teach students how racism has affected individuals and the different laws in place that have resulted in mass incarceration ... so we don’t repeat it.”

Keven Pinder, 66, a Democrat of Pikesville, said he isn’t familiar with the curriculum, but does believe public schools should teach that racism exists. Students should understand “not everybody sits in a chair at the same height,” he said.

Michael Lyons, 69, of Frederick County, said there’s no questions that racism exists, but he believes children are being indoctrinated. He declined to identify his political party.

Despite those views, people who responded to the poll overwhelmingly support parents having a role in deciding what is taught in schools. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents all reported that parents have a role to play.

The question is broadly worded and shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted to mean Marylanders should be involved in the details of education, said Kromer, but most do think parents have a role.

Andy Krowl, 71, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he doesn’t want parents to dictate the banning of books or the details of a curriculum, but he sees a role for parents in helping decide what types of courses should be taught, for instance.

The majority of Marylanders also support mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for schoolchildren, the poll found. Fifty-four percent said they support mandatory vaccinations, while 40% did not. No Maryland school system requires a COVID vaccine to attend school, though some have required student athletes to be vaccinated. Whether a vaccine is required of schoolchildren is a decision that would be made by state health officials.

The sentiment tracks with current vaccination rates in the state. Currently, 79% of children 11-17 years of age are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 45% of children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated.

Krowl said our state has always required students to be vaccinated against polio, measles, mumps and rubella.

“I am thinking why do we exclude COVID from the vaccinations?” he said. Lyons and his grandkids, who attend Frederick County Public Schools, are fully vaccinated. But it shouldn’t be a requirement for all kids, he said, because “who knows what that’ll do to them by the time they turn 50.”

Overall, the fact that so many Marylanders from different political parties feel the same on a number of different issues shows that the state has not strayed too far left or too far right on education, said Anderson, the Johns Hopkins scholar. Just south in Virginia, for instance, the governor has banned critical race theory and instituted a hotline for parents to report their teachers, she said.

Maryland is a contrast. Anderson said schools are teaching about racism in the context of the history of the African American experience. “I think what you are seeing is that people want their children in safe and healthy schools, but they recognize that education is a profession and they want the professionals to do their jobs well,” she said.

Those beliefs, Anderson said, give a sense of what our politicians are likely to make their priorities after the November election.

This Goucher College Poll is a journalism collaboration between the Baltimore Banner and 88.1, WYPR-FM. Read and listen all this week for more stories about what we learned.

Correction

This story was updated to correct the percentage of respondents who agreed and disagreed that schools should teach about racism.

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