Voters reward or punish incumbent school board members based on the achievement of white students in their district, while outcomes for African-American and Hispanic students get relatively little attention at the ballot box, according to a study co-authored by a Baylor University scholar.
The study, published in the American Journal of Political Science, reveals a sharp divide between reality and the democratic ideal of public schools as American society’s “great equalizer,” said Patrick Flavin, Ph.D., associate professor of political science in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.
“Public education represents the largest investment in equal opportunity and social mobility in the United States,” he said. “But we find little evidence that African-American or Hispanic student achievement has much influence on reelection prospects of incumbent school board members.
“Even in California school districts in which Hispanic students outnumber white students, we still uncovered patterns of racial inequality,” Flavin said.
When the federal government enacted the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law in 2002, one important requirement was that information on racial student subgroups’ performance be made available to parents and the public to help advance equality. Until then, many states hid achievement gaps among white, Hispanic and African-American students, Flavin said.
With the new law, “local elected officials were expected to face greater political pressure at election time to raise the performance of racial minorities and other subgroups,” he said.
To examine whether that expectation matched the results, Flavin and Boston College co-author Michael T. Hartney analyzed 1,500 individual school board member elections between 2004 and 2013. The study examined elections in 946 of California’s 1,025 school districts. Those districts that were not studied did not have an incumbent up for election or data was not available.
The researchers chose California because it strives to make school performance information widely available to the public so voters can evaluate schools’ equality and hold school leaders accountable. It posts proficiency scores for each district’s demographic groups on the Department of Education’s website in late August or early September, leading up to school board elections in November.
“California also is the nation’s most populous state and very racially diverse, so it made for a good test of our research question,” Flavin said.
The study’s results suggest that reelection of school board incumbents is tied to white student achievement; less so to Hispanic student achievement; and seemingly not at all to African-American achievement, he said.
In their effort to understand these findings better, the researchers also conducted an anonymous survey of 290 incumbent school board members in California and asked them what they believed to be important to voters in their school district. The options listed included student preparedness for college and career; school safety and student discipline; adequate administrative staffing to oversee standardized testing; and sports teams that are competitive and well-funded. One randomized half of school board respondents also viewed an additional option: “closing the racial achievement gap.” By including this additional option, the researchers could discern, in an unobtrusive way, what percentage of school board members identify closing the racial achievement gap as an important issue to voters, Flavin said.
The results were striking, he said nearly 40 percent of school board incumbents did not report feeling electoral pressure to make progress on narrowing the racial achievement gap.
In addition to analyzing data about student achievement and incumbents’ reelection, the researchers examined citizens’ attitudes about the achievement gap using data from a survey conducted by the Gallup Organization and Phi Delta Kappa, a national professional organization for educators.
In the representative survey of 1,108 individuals, Hartney and Flavin found that nearly half of respondents were unaware of differences in achievement among racial groups. Of the 54 percent who were aware, all but 5 percent said the gap was “very important” or “somewhat important.” Of those who knew about the achievement gaps, only 24 percent believe it was due to school quality, with most believing that schools were responsible for improving the quality and closing the gap.
“Put another way, fully 76 percent of respondents who identified that the achievement gap exists believe it is due to factors outside of the control of the schools — and by extension, school board members,” Flavin said. “They believe the gap is caused by wider societal factors such as home life, culture and poverty.
“Taking our results as a whole, the study ultimately calls into question whether voter control of public school governance is a viable avenue to correct racial inequality in education that can have important and enduring effects on democratic citizenship and political equality.”