Budget & Finance

What Kinds of School Bond Measures Win Big at Ballot Box?

By Sean Cavanagh — March 29, 2011 2 min read
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Every year, in cities and towns across the country, local governments ask voters to approve special bond measures for schools to provide cash infusions for projects that officials argue are beyond the scope of their normal budgets.

But what kinds of school bond measures win voters’ approval most often? And what items tend to go down to defeat?

That issue has been of interest to academic researchers for years. One such scholar is Alex Bowers, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, who I heard present preliminary findings on voting trends on bond issues at the annual meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, in Seattle.

Research on voters’ reactions to school bond measures dates at least as far back as the 1950s, Bowers explained in an e-mail. It’s a topic that no doubt intrigues local government officials who weigh whether to put bonds on the ballot, how to word them, and what do ask for.

Bowers examined Texas school bond measures from 1997-2008 by using a statistical model and through different methods for two years after that. He coded the wording of the bond measures into different categories, and merged that material with information from the Common Core of Data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Overall, he found that about 78 percent of bond measures were approved from 1997-2008, but the odds of passage increased or declined according to a couple factors. Bonds that were directed at spending on school faciltites renovation and debt refinancing did pretty well, winning passage more than 80 percent of the time, as did items for technology improvements, which had an even higher rate of success. Items to support athletics- and arts-focused measures didn’t do as well, with passage rates hovering around 60 percent. Bonds stood a better chance of passage the first time they were “floated” or put forward to voters, but the odds declined after that.

Having a relatively high population of voters 65 or older was a “strong negative predictor” in terms of the odds of bond passage, Bowers found, while having a relatively high Hispanic or Asian student populations was a positive one (a finding that has potentially large implications, he noted, in Texas, a state with a growing Latino population). Items placed farther down the ballot fared more poorly, he found.

Previous research on bond measures has indicated that strong turnout past a certain point tends to lower the odds of voter approval, Bowers explained. (So if you’re an administrator in a cash-strapped district, see if you can arrange some bad weather on election day).

The overall bond passage rate in Texas held relatively steady during the time period examined by Bowers. The exception was 2010, when there was a dramatic dropoff, and the approval rate fell below 50 percent, which might have been the result of the deep recession.

Passage rates vary by state, said Bowers, who worked on the project with Jooyoung Lee. The Texas study built on previous work that Bowers and other researchers did examining the success or failure of bonds in Michigan.

So if you’re a savvy government official, what’s the best strategy? Getting your item high on the ballot seems like a good idea. So is focusing on school renovation, or refinancing, or maybe technology.

And then pray for rain or snow.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.