New & Now:

Board Balloting: Why local politics, and parents’ participation in it, affects school performance.

It’s no secret that schools boasting high levels of parental participation tend to top the charts on measures of student achievement. But what about at the policy-making level? Might more parental participation in school board elections also point to better performance in the classroom?

A new study of more than 200 Missouri school districts by David Webber, an associate professor of political science at MU, suggests this is indeed the case.

The reason, he says, has to do with what scholars call “social capital,” a phrase describing the benefits that accrue to communities that leverage individual talents and skills to advance common interests.

In theory, districts with healthy social capital levels would show greater interest in, and demand more accountability from, local school boards. This, in turn, would translate into better performing schools.

“Because voter turnout and candidate competition in school district elections reflect a district’s social capital,” Webber says, “these characteristics of school board elections should affect how schools perform and be valued as a means for improving school performance.”

And, in fact, that’s what Webber found.

In the 206 school districts he surveyed, school board elections from 1998 to 2001 averaged a scant 22 percent cast ballots. But, tellingly, every one percent increase in voter turnout correlated to roughly a one percent increase in state assessment scores.

Why don’t more voters show an interest? One important reason, Webber says, is a lack of candidates to get excited about. Even though local school board elections are typically friendly to non-professional candidates who might be seeking elected office for the first time, only a handful of citizens consider running. “On average, for every school board seat on which voters were asked to vote, there were fewer than two candidates vying for the position,” Webber says.

When few candidates stand for board seats, voters note the lack of choice and are less enthusiastic about participating in elections. Social capital slips and schools are affected.

“The education reform debate so far,” Webber concluded in his findings, “has focused on the long-disputed issues of high-stakes assessment and accountability and on adequate funding and teacher qualifications, while ignoring the fundamental idea that a school district’s social capital, as reflected in voting participation (and other forms of civic engagement), could make a difference in education policy performance.”

The study, “School District Democracy: School Board Voting and School Performance,” was published in February in Politics & Policy.

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