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Perspective | A ‘dividing line’ that clouds reopening of schools

The Pew Research Center, a prolific source of in-depth public opinion analysis, has explored for years the partisan polarization so central to contemporary national and state politics and governance. Note its italicized “the” in this key sentence: “Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes.”

As schooling resumes, administrators, teachers, and parents have made wrenching, not-easy-choices decisions shaped not only by public health evidence but also by a charged political atmosphere. A unified approach and common ground have been elusive.

In a set of findings released last week, Pew reported the differences in American adults’ opinions on how K-12 schools should reopen amid the coronavirus outbreak: 28% for online instruction, 19% for in-class daily instruction, 36% for a mix of online and in-class. After examining similar spread of opinion among parents as well as along lines of race, income, and gender, Pew reported “even wider partisan gaps in views of what schools should do in the fall.”

“Some 36% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say that, all things considered, K-12 schools in their area should offer in-person instruction five days a week; just 6% of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say the same,” Pew reported. “And while 41% of Democrats say schools should offer online instruction five days a week, just 13% of Republicans agree. Similar shares of Republicans and Democrats say schools in their area should offer a mix of in-person and online instruction.”

In a stream of surveys, Pew has detected a recurring pattern — that it is crucial to look behind the so-called top-line numbers of what proportion of citizens support this or oppose that, and to see the distinct attitudinal differences between Democrats and Republicans on issue after issue. Pew findings show that differences along lines of educational attainment and race define the chasm between the two parties.

 In a separate recent report, Pew researchers observed:

“With the presidential election on the horizon, the U.S. electorate continues to be deeply divided by race and ethnicity, education, gender, age and religion. The Republican and Democratic coalitions, which bore at least some demographic similarities in past decades, have strikingly different profiles today.”

The deep divide serves today as a barrier to an infusion of federal assistance that North Carolina and its schools need to withstand the interlocked crises of public health, economic recession, and fiscal battering to state and local governments. The divide among voters is reflected in the divisions among their elected representatives, intensified by a quarrelsome President Trump.

With a sense of emergency early in the pandemic, bipartisan congressional majorities and the Trump administration enacted the $3 trillion CARES Act. That law allocated $13 billion to states to bolster schools and $3.5 billion for child care. This week, Gov.  Roy Cooper applied $95.6 million of federal stimulus funds under his control to support schools and students.

Even as CARES was enacted and served as a temporary economic buffer, public officials knew it wasn’t enough in the event of a prolonged pandemic. The North Carolina General Assembly left $1 billion unspent to await details of a second round of federal stimulus.

The bipartisanship of the first round has collapsed. The U.S. House with a Democratic majority has approved a $3 trillion second stimulus package. The Republican Senate majority aimed for a $1 trillion measure, but passed nothing in the face of internal GOP divisions. Even as he continues to demand that schools reopen, President Trump offered no financial sustenance for schools under stress in the four documents he signed last weekend.

Partisanship tends to harden in the late-campaign dash to Election Day. Still, as the election draws closer, perhaps congressional and legislative candidates will feel enough public pressure to respond to economic and educational emergencies with further stimulus. Otherwise, North Carolina could confront a deterioration of its public education systems that would take years to rebuild.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.