How do adult "culture wars" in education affect student learning in the classroom? I explore this question by combining information on nearly 500 school district political controversies with data on state test scores. Leveraging variation in the location and timing of these events as the basis for a difference-in-differences design, I show that student achievement declines in the wake of adult political battles. The effects are concentrated in math achievement -- the equivalent of approximately 10 days of lost learning -- and persist for at least four years. The declines are particularly pronounced for controversies surrounding racial issues and the teaching of evolution. These results suggest that well-intentioned education advocacy efforts focused on salient social justice issues may backfire, producing in unintended negative impacts on student achievement, and raise new questions about the adequacy of local democratic processes for the governance of public schools.
culture wars, education politics, student achievement, local control of schools
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