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Taking the Public Out of Education Politics: Off-Cycle School Board Elections

Fri, August 30, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Hilton, Monroe


American K-12 education remains deeply shaped by Progressive era (1890-1930) reforms that sought to “take the politics out” of school governance. In recent years, political scientists have highlighted the consequences of one enduring Progressive reform: the widespread practice of holding school board elections “off-cycle” so that they are contested apart from regular national elections. Scholars have found that off-cycle elections lower voter turnout (Hajnal, Lewis, and Louch 2002), weaken retrospective electoral accountability (Payson 2016), and ultimately influence the public policy outcomes that organized interests, like teachers unions, care about most (Anzia 2014). However, one important question remains unanswered: do off-cycle board elections diminish substantive representation for the median voter in a given school district? The answer to this question is important because, as V.O. Key (1961) famously declared, “Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all the talk about democracy is nonsense.” Although the public view local school boards as an important political institution for keeping school officials responsive to community concerns, there are a variety of reasons to suspect that local education policy-making suffers from a lack of democratic accountability in practice. The widespread use of oddly-timed (“off-cycle”), non-partisan, and staggered school board elections tends to insulate board members from voters in ways that most conventional state and federal politicians are not. Theoretically, it becomes more difficult to keep school board members responsive to community concerns when the average voter is trapped in a low-visibility environment (e.g., off-cycle elections) without helpful informational cues (e.g., party identification). In this study, we draw on multiple surveys of school board members gathered over the course of a decade, leveraging changes to the same districts’ electoral calendars, to test our theory that off cycle elections weaken representation. Overall, we find that off-cycle school board elections weaken representation by steering the composition of school boards away from the district’s median constituent. For example, board members are much less likely to share partisan and ideological traits that match their constituents when board members obtained their seat in an off-cycle election. Finally, we show that ideological and partisan traits matter for board members’ policy priorities even though board members are elected on a non-partisan basis.