Majorities of Americans Approve of Citizens and Elected Officials Speaking Their Minds on Politics, but Not Public School Teachers

Americans say students, librarians, parents should play a big part in what is available in middle school libraries – not elected officials

March 22, 2023

Majorities of Americans are supportive of fellow citizens, members of Congress, and professional athletes speaking their minds about politics, but not public school teachers in the classroom – according to the newest edition of the Grinnell College National Poll. The findings of the poll, conducted March 14–19, 2023, by Selzer & Company, were released Wednesday, March 22, 2023.

The national poll asked if the respondents thought it appropriate or inappropriate for members of seven specific groups to speak their minds regarding political issues. All but one group received a thumbs up that it is appropriate to speak about politics within their associated setting. The one exception – public school teachers. A majority (57%) say it is inappropriate for this group to speak about politics within their classrooms. Among parents of children in public schools, 41% say it is appropriate, while 58% say it is not.

Bar chart showing a majority (57%) say it is inappropriate for public school teachers to speak about politics within their classrooms

Those opposing the teachers’ ability to speak about politics within the classroom include greater than average proportions of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (68%), suburban women (65%), those with incomes $100K or above (63%) and Catholics (64%).

“Views of what is happening in public schools is the one place where suburban women align with Republicans,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of polling firm Selzer & Company. “The reason we hear so many messages about what is happening in public schools may be the Republican wish to re-take the suburbs in key swing states (for example, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania). That shift from voting for Donald Trump in 2016 to Joe Biden in 2020 hinged on a shift among suburban voters, in particular suburban women.”

The Public School’s Role in Political Issues – From Book Bans to Student Gender Identity

Debates have intensified across the country about what kinds of books and materials are appropriate to include in public school libraries – and over who should make those decisions. Majorities see a big role in deciding about library materials for school librarians (57%), students (55%), and families of students (53%), but the main takeaway is that a majority of Americans do not want elected officials at the state level to play a big part in these decisions.

“We find that Americans want decisions about materials in school libraries to be made locally by school librarians, families, school boards, and students themselves,” said Peter Hanson, director of the Grinnell College National Poll and associate professor of political science. “There is very little appetite among our respondents for state officials playing a big part in decisions about school libraries.”

Bar chart showing size of role in decisions about materials in school libraries

The poll explored what kind of material should or should not be part of a public middle school library. Of the six topics polled, all were endorsed by a majority, but the smallest majorities are reflected in materials about sexual orientation (56%) and gender identity (57%). The largest majorities are 84% for the Bible and 76% for racism in American society.

Bar chart showing topics that should/should not be in a middle school library

“Even as public schools across the country are seeing demands to remove books from their libraries and classrooms, we find that the majority of Americans believe that school libraries should include a diverse array of educational materials,” said Hanson. "We asked our respondents about everything from gender identity to the Bible. In each case, a majority supported including those materials in a school library. This is a strong signal that Americans believe a sound education requires students to have access to a rich array of books and resources on topics that are interesting and important to them.”

Kayla Reed, discovery, systems and digital strategy librarian at Grinnell College, said, “The importance of representation in school library materials aligns with the need to broaden content beyond one’s own community to help better understand marginalized students and provide higher levels of empathy.”

Worries over Public Library Content Decisions

By about a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say they are more worried that materials valuable to students will be removed from school libraries (62%) than worried materials harmful to students will remain available in school libraries (30%). Republicans divide evenly at 44-44% on this question, and all other groups tilt solidly toward expressing concern about materials being removed.

“This has been the stance of librarians all along,” added Kayla Reed, whose research focuses on LGBTQ educational information. “We choose material based on importance to the student. And we worry that content will be removed that is valuable to a student’s well-being. Librarians want to be a resource for all types of information that a student may seek without repercussion.”

Parental Notification About Changes in Gender Identity

Several states are considering legislation requiring schools to inform parents when a student has adopted a gender identity different from the one assigned to them at birth. The poll’s data reveal that 43% of respondents say it is “very important” for schools to inform parents about an observed change in a student’s gender identity, 23% say it is “somewhat important” and 31% say it is “not important.” There are significant differences in views by party identification: 71% of Republicans say it is “very important” for schools to inform parents, compared to 37% of independents and 25% of Democrats. 

Majority of Americans Oppose Ban on Gender-Affirming Care for Those Under 18

With many states in the process of or recently enacting legislation to ban gender-affirming care for transgender individuals under the age of 18, respondents were asked if they favored or opposed legislation that would ban transgender children from receiving such care with the approval of their parents or guardians and their doctors. A majority (53%) oppose this type of legislation, indicating they reject a ban. Those most likely to oppose are Democrats (78%).

Bar chart showing 53% of Americans oppose ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors

For more political and legislative insight from the Grinnell College National Poll, see related press release, "Biden Favorability Leads Trump, Other Potential Candidates Tested."

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