How and when you cast your vote in a local school board election could have more of an effect on student achievement than you think, according to a report on school board governance released Wednesday by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
The report – written by Michael Hartney, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Notre Dame, and Arnold Shober, an assistant professor of government at Lawrence University – finds school districts that academically "beat the odds" are those with school board members who explicitly prioritize student achievement, and are elected through at large and on-cycle elections. Additionally, moderates tend to be better informed than liberals and conservatives when it comes to funding and class sizes, and those with backgrounds in public education are less knowledgeable about district conditions.
"[The report shows] that school board members are political," Hartney says. "It turns out that the way … they behave and the policies they're going to push while on the board, like any legislative position, is highly influenced by their political ideology."
The study drew on data from the 2009 National School Boards Association Survey, which included questions about board member demographics, political associations, professional background and elections, and polled 900 board members from 417 school districts. To compare the responses with actual district conditions, Hartney and Shober matched the responses to district-level and state-level demographic, revenue and achievement data.
Of those surveyed, nearly half (47 percent) identified as moderates, 21 percent identified as liberal and 32 percent identified as conservative. Additionally, 27 percent reported having a professional background in education. Current and former educators who serve on school boards, Hartney says, had views about district conditions that were more divorced from reality.
Board members who were current or former professional educators, for example, were 6.4 percent more likely to say funding is a major roadblock to improving students' academic achievement, regardless of the actual funding conditions in the district, and controlling for political ideology. Political moderates, on the other hand, tended to give answers that match the current district conditions in terms of funding and class sizes.
Hartney says that although they cannot claim a "cause and effect" association between school board composition and student achievement – the researchers don't have measures of achievement over time and couldn't randomly assign board members with certain views to different districts – there appears to be a connection between the timing of elections and districts exceeding academic expectations based on student characteristics.
"If you could pick your ideal school board member, we want them to be focused on student achievement, we want them not to really govern on the basis of political ideology or past educational background," Hartney says. "It's more likely that you're going to get that desirable candidate when you hold the election at a time of year when most voters are paying attention, rather than just a narrow interest group."
Holding school board elections in August, he says, would make it more likely that teachers and their unions would mobilize to vote because "most people simply aren't paying attention to politics in August."
The report finds holding school board elections at the same time as state or national elections corresponds with a proficiency rate about 2.4 points higher than comparable districts. Likewise, at large elections – as opposed to those divided by ward or subdistrict – correlated with a proficiency rate about 1.9 points higher than comparable districts.
"There have been a lot of people who tend to think that anything outside the classroom doesn't really matter, that it's all about teacher effectiveness or curriculum," says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank. "For sure, that's where the rubber meets the road, but it turns out that these issues of governance do matter, and that if you have members who are focused on academic improvement, you'll get more academic improvement."
Overall, Petrilli says the research provides evidence that there are things states and local communities can do to make school board governance marginally better, and in turn have a marginal effect on student achievement.
"This is not going to set the world on fire, but it could make a difference at the margins," Petrilli says. "And it's also one of those things that should be easy."
Not only does having at large and on-cycle elections increase the chances for a wider voter pool, Hartney says, but it also saves school districts money by piggybacking their elections with other state elections. Additionally, he says voters need to do their homework when it comes time to evaluating potential school board members.
"The findings in the aggregate suggest voters need to at least ask those questions. If somebody's running for office who is a current or former educator, ask them questions about what are their big priorities for the district, where do they rank improving student achievement relative to more holistic goals?" Hartney says.
Still, the report found 70 percent of districts do not hold their school board elections on cycle with other elections.
"An area of focus that deserves more attention is why … are policymakers and the public still living in a world where they're OK with school board elections being held at odd times of the year, particularly when that's a change that doesn't cost any money?" Hartney says. "In a time of fiscal difficulty, why would you hold the election when you're going to have fewer people turning out to vote, and the prospect for getting biased or slanted board members is much higher?"