School & District Management

Voter Turnout Drops for School Board Elections Where Charters Thrive

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 18, 2019 4 min read
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Most charters operate outside the purview of elected school boards, but the publicly funded, independently operated schools have rarely been studied for their impact on school districts as civic institutions.

Now, one of the first studies to take an empirical look at this question finds that the rapid increase in charter enrollment in Ohio in the earlier part of the decade appears to have modestly depressed voter turnout in local school board elections.

A 1 percentage-point increase in charter school enrollment was linked to a decline in votes cast in elections for school board seats of about 2.5 percent to 4 percent, according to the study, conducted by Stéphane Lavertu, an associate professor at the Ohio State University and three other researchers. But it did not appear to affect other elections featuring state or national contests.

“It looks like charter enrollment might affect participation in school district democracy—but not so much democracy in general,” Lavertu said.

Ripe for Research

Social scientists have long theorized about the impact of charters on notions of what is public and private. Debates rage over whether charter schools, which are run by nonprofits, for-profits, universities—and, yes, some school districts—should even be considered public in the traditional sense. States vary, for example, on whether they are bound by the same open-records or financial transparency rules as traditional district schools.

But there’s little research trying to analyze this topic from a quantitative lens. And school boards as an institution are also relatively understudied.

“It’s an important aspect of politics at the local level,” Lavertu pointed out. “We have 13,000-plus little democracies. School boards are the most prominent democratic institutions in the U.S.”

The study aims to quantify one part of how school choice might affect those small democracies. It was released on EdWorkingPapers, a new website begun by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

For the study, the researchers collected data on odd-year school board elections from Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas, representing 265 of the state’s more than 600 school districts, from 1999 through 2011. They paired those data with election records obtained from a third-party vendor and school enrollment records.

Then, they used a statistical approach to compare voting patterns in districts experiencing greater charter enrollment with those districts with lesser or no charter enrollments.

In all, they found consistent evidence linking increased enrollment in charters to a decline in votes cast—for every 1 percentage-point increase, a decrease on average of about 100 to 160 fewer votes cast per open school board seat. (In Ohio, those elections are held in odd years and already tend to have lower turnouts than elections in even years, which feature congressional and presidential elections.)

While substantial, those declines don’t appear to have materially affected the outcomes in many board elections. Notably, this pattern did not seem to affect even-year election years, and the drop-off in voting did not occur in elections when pocketbook issues, like tax levies, were on ballots alongside school board positions.

The pattern was more pronounced in districts serving children in poverty, low-performing students, and black students—probably because those were the districts where charters were allowed to open, Lavertu surmised.

Finally, the pattern appears to be a result of fewer new voters hitting the polls, rather than low turnout among previously active voters.

The study doesn’t link specific parents to their voting records, so it’s unclear precisely what mechanism produces those results. But a likely explanation is that when parents opt out of the local school system, they don’t feel the need to keep up with its inner workings. In effect, the increase in charter enrollments led to disengagement from school district governance, the study notes.

A ‘Logical’ Impact

That’s both an eye-opening finding and a common-sense one, observers said.

“It’s like, ‘Holy cow, oh no!’ But when you dig in, that makes sense,” said Chad Aldis, the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, which reviewed the paper for Education Week. The organization has advocated tightening up Ohio’s charter laws and authorizes some charters in the state.

“If I’ve chosen not to send my kid to the local schools, why would I want to spend the time voting on the school board candidates who were running?” Aldis said. “In many ways, I think it’s logical.”

Many charter proponents see districts as mired in inefficiency and petty squabbles and may not worry about slightly lower turnout among parents who chose to bypass district-run schools, Aldis noted. But for proponents who believe local school elections are at the heart of American democracy—and that the health of the nation depends on the health of these local institutions—the lowered turnout is a potentially worrisome finding.

It’s unclear whether the Ohio results could apply in other states, which use different election schedules. Charter school enrollments, after a period of impressive national growth, have flattened since 2013, and state policies on charters’ governance and expansion vary greatly. It’s also uncertain whether these results would look the same in a district that has higher or lower proportions of students in charters compared with the Ohio districts studied.

But the research has potential implications for both education and election policy.

“If it ever became a bigger issue, and we really became concerned about voting in those districts that have a really strong charter market share,” Aldis said, “they might want to consider moving to on-cycle election periods.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2019 edition of Education Week as Where Charters Thrive, Turnout for K-12 Elections Drops


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