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Politics, governance, philanthropy, and organizations
COVID-19 upended schooling across the United States, but with what consequences for the state-level institutions that drive most education policy? This paper reports findings on two related research questions. First, what were the most important ways state government education policymakers changed schools and schooling from the moment they began to reckon with the seriousness of COVID-19 through the first full academic year of the pandemic? Second, how deep did those changes go – are there indications the pandemic triggered efforts to make lasting changes in states’ education policymaking institutions? Using multiple-methods research focused on Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oregon, we documented policies enacted during the period from March 2020 through June 2021 across states and across sectors (traditional and choice) in three COVID-19-related education policy domains: school closings and reopenings, budgeting and resource allocation, and assessment and accountability systems. We found that states quickly enacted radical changes to policies that had taken generations to develop. They mandated sweeping school closures in Spring 2020, and then a diverse array of school reopening policies in the 2020/2021 school year. States temporarily modified their attendance-based funding systems and allocated massive federal COVID-19 relief funds. Finally, states suspended annual student testing, modified the wide array of accountability policies and programs linked to the results of those tests, and adapted to new assessment methods. These crisis-driven policy changes deeply disrupted long-established patterns and practices in education. Despite this, we found that state education governance systems remained resilient, and that at least during the first 16 months of the pandemic, stakeholders showed little interest in using the crisis to trigger more lasting institutional change. We hope these findings enable state policymakers to better prepare for future crises.
The improvement of low-performing school systems is one potential strategy for mitigating educational inequality. Some evidence suggests districtwide reform may be more effective than school-level change, but limited research examines district-level turnaround. There is also little scholarship examining the effects of turnaround reforms on outcomes beyond the first few years of implementation, on outcomes beyond test scores, or on the effectiveness of efforts to replicate district improvement successes beyond an initial reform context. We study these topics in Massachusetts, home to the Lawrence district representing a rare case of demonstrated improvements in the early years of state takeover and turnaround and where state leaders have since intervened in three other contexts as a result. We use statewide student-level administrative data (2006-07 to 2018-19) and event study methods to estimate medium-term reform impacts on test and non-test outcomes across four Massachusetts-based contexts: Lawrence, Holyoke, Springfield, and Southbridge. We find substantial district improvement was possible although sustaining the rate of gains was more complicated. Replicating gains in new contexts was also possible but not guaranteed.
School districts across the U.S. have adopted funding policies designed to distribute resources more equitably across schools. However, schools are also increasing external fundraising efforts to supplement district budget allocations. We document the interaction between funding policies and fundraising efforts in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). We find that adoption of a weighted-student funding policy successfully reallocated more dollars to schools with high shares of students eligible for free/reduced-price (FRL) lunch, creating a policy-induced per-pupil expenditure gap. Further, almost all schools raised external funds over the study period with most dollars raised concentrated in schools serving relatively affluent populations. We estimate that external fundraising offset the policy-induced per- pupil expenditure gap between schools enrolling the lowest and highest shares of FRL-eligible students by 26-39 percent. Other districts have attempted to reallocate fundraised dollars to all schools; such a policy in CPS would have little impact on most schools’ budgets.
School board candidates supported by local teachers' unions overwhelmingly win and we examine the causes and consequences of the "teachers' union premium" in these elections. First, we show that union endorsement information increases voter support. Although the magnitude of this effect varies across ideological and partisan subgroups, an endorsement never hurts a candidate's prospects among any major segment of the electorate. Second, we benchmark the size of the endorsement premium to other well-known determinants of vote-choice in local elections. Perhaps surprisingly, we show the endorsement effect can be as large as the impact of shared partisanship, and substantially larger than the boost from endorsements provided by other stakeholders. Finally, examining real-world endorsement decisions, we find that union support for incumbents hinges on self-interested pecuniary considerations and is unaffected by performance in improving student academic outcomes. The divergence between what endorsements mean and how voters interpret them have troubling normative democratic implications.
Partisanship influenced learning modality after the pandemic’s onset, but it is unknown whether partisanship predicted other aspects of educational operations. We study the role of partisanship, race, markets, and public health in predicting a range of operations—from modality to family engagement to social-emotional support to teacher PD—throughout 2020-21 in the context of Virginia. Districts’ partisan makeup and racial composition were similarly predictive of in-person offerings throughout 2020-21 but partisanship was less predictive over time. District characteristics explained limited variation in other aspects of operations, though districts with larger private school sectors provided more supports. Results emphasize the role of partisanship, race, and markets in reopening but also suggest school operational decisions were less politicized than choice of modality.
Congestion is a persistent and expensive problem, costing the nation collectively over $300 billion each year. Cities have generally attempted to address congestion using an unoriginal set of expensive strategies, like building new roads or expanding public transit, and many cities are considering implementing congestion pricing. Expanding school bus service may be a palatable solution because it provides a service instead of involving lengthy and costly construction or charging a new fee. School travel is also a sizeable portion of total daily tra c. Indeed, over 50 million children travel to and from school each day and their commutes account for about one-quarter of total daily commuter trips. School travel and school-provided transportation is generally the domain of school districts and not city governments and the school districts in most large cities are independent from city governments. This may lead to a coordination problem if school districts ignore congestion caused, or exacerbated by, school travel. To determine whether pupil transportation reduces congestion, I exploit the interaction of pupil transportation provision (variation in pupil transportation spending and school bus use within districts) and idiosyncratic, within-city and within-month variation in the percentage of weekdays that are instructional school days in a month. I build a rich, monthly, longitudinal data set for congestion, school days, and transportation policy for 51 cities from 2013 to 2019 and find congestion is significantly higher on school days and pupil transportation alleviates congestion caused by school children’s travel. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests cities should subsidize the additional spending needed by the school district to transport more students and lower congestion.
Frames shape public opinion on policy issues, with implications for policy adoption and agenda-setting. What impact do common issue frames for racial equity in education have on voters’ support for racially equitable education policy? Across survey experiments with two independent representative polls of California voters, framing effects were moderated by voters’ prior policy preferences. Among respondents concerned with tax policy, a frame emphasizing the economic benefits of equity elicited higher priority for racial equity in education. Among respondents concerned with social justice, an “equal opportunity” frame elicited higher priority ratings. However, exploratory analyses showed frames only mattered when respondents held mixed policy preferences. Among respondents who (a) valued both tax policy and social justice issues, or who (b) valued neither, both frames were equally impactful.
This mixed methods research study explores superintendents’ beliefs about and engagement in state education policymaking processes. Through interviews with 58 superintendents and a national survey of superintendents, I find that many superintendents feel that their voices have value in state policymaking spaces; however, superintendents’ actual engagement in state policymaking processes is relatively low. Three factors shape superintendents’ state policy engagement: (1) personal capacity, (2) proximity to state capitol, and (3) district size. This work can guide the development of formal educational opportunities and experiences to better prepare superintendents to engage in policy spaces. Colleges of education, researchers, and policymakers can also draw on this work as they consider solutions to reduce inequalities in superintendents’ access to shape state education policy.
This paper presents new evidence on the benefits of decentralization in public education, focusing on a Chicago policy that granted school principals more control over budgeting and operations. Meta-analysis of similar policies shows a small average effect with significant variation across settings. To explain this heterogeneity, I adopt theories from public finance, contract theory and psychology that suggest that the impact of autonomy depends on motivation effects, principal objectives, and the alignment between district and school choices. In event-study models, on average, increased school-level control improved math and English passing rates by about four percentage points (0.1σ), comparable to interventions costing over $1,000 per pupil but achieved at nearly zero cost. Affected schools also see reduced principal turnover and improved school climate, indicating increased stability and effort. Deconvolution-based analysis of the distribution of true effects reveals a range from zero at the 20th percentile to a ten percentage-point increase at the 80th percentile (approximately 0.2σ). I provide design-based evidence supporting the theoretical literature: (a) High-quality principals with a track record of strong test score growth experience more positive autonomy effects – underscoring the role of local capacity and well-aligned incentives. (b) Schools with atypical student populations benefit more from autonomy and allocate resources to services tailored to their student’s specific needs – indicating that heterogeneity plays a key role.