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America's decentralized system of public school governance is premised on the assumption that the interests of voters who elect school boards will be aligned with the educational needs of students. We explore the plausibility of this assumption by comparing the demographic characteristics of voters and students across four states. Using official voter turnout records and rich microtargeting data, we document considerable demographic differences between voters who participate in school board elections and the students attending the schools that boards oversee, suggesting that the assumption is unlikely to describe reality in many settings. For example, we show that most majority-nonwhite districts in our sample have a majority-white electorate and that these electoral disparities are associated with racial achievement gaps. Our novel analysis provides important political context for considering the electoral incentives facing school boards and how these incentives shape the quality of public education.
We use close tax elections to estimate the impact of school district funding increases on operational spending and student outcomes across seven states. Districts with passing levies directed new revenue toward support services and instructor salaries but did not increase teacher staffing levels. These districts eventually realized gains in student achievement and attainment. Our preferred estimates imply that increasing operational spending by $1,000 per pupil increased test scores by approximately 0.15 of a standard deviation and graduation rates by approximately 9 percentage points. There is some evidence of diminishing returns, as these effects are driven by districts below the median in spending per pupil. Based on research linking academic outcomes to earnings, we conclude that these spending increases were likely cost-effective.
Governments around the world have privatized public services in the name of efficiency and citizen empowerment, but some argue that privatization could also affect citizen participation in democratic governance. We explore this possibility by estimating the impact of charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated) on school district elections. The analysis indicates that the enrollment of district students in charter schools reduced the number of votes cast in district school board contests and, correspondingly, reduced turnout in the odd-year elections in which those contests are held. This impact is concentrated in districts that serve low-achieving, impoverished, and minority students, leading to a modest decline in the share of voters in those districts who are black and who have children. There is little evidence that charter school expansion affected the outcomes of school board elections or turnout in other elections