The increasing pile of research on charter schools mainly focuses on how much the publicly funded, privately run schools help students learn.
That’s undoubtedly an important topic. But one of the relatively understudied aspects of the movement has been how they impact public schools as a civic institution. After all, charters largely if not exclusively operate outside of the purview of school districts.
One of the first studies to take an empirical look at the civic implications of the charter movement 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 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 often run by nonprofits, for-profits, universities—and, yes, even some school districts—should even be considered public in the traditional sense. Some nonprofit charter management organizations, for example, have argued that they are not bound by the same open-records or transparency rules as district schools. (See this Tweet and the resulting thread for an example of this kind of debate, and how heated it quickly gets.)
But there’s little research trying to analyze this topic from a quantitative lens. And school boards as an institution are also relatively understudied, despite their importance in the United States’ decentralized system of public education.
“In general there’s this sense that school district politics is an opportunity for people to engage in politics. 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, by Lavertu and Vladimir Kogan at Ohio State, Jason B. Cook of the University of PIttsburgh, and Zachary Peskowitz of Emory University, tries to get a sense of how offering more choices ultimately impacts the underlying public school ecosystem. It was released on EdWorkingPapers, a new online site begun by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University that hosts draft education research papers.
For the study, they 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 this data with election records obtained from a third-party vendor, and publicly available data on the school districts, including school enrollment data.
Then, they used a statistical approach to compare voting patterns in districts experiencing charter expansion to those districts where charters did not expand. To rule out the possibility that other factors—like varying growth in student enrollment rates—might have skewed the results, they also ran the data through a number of different models.
In all, they found consistent evidence linking increased enrollment in charters to a decline in votes cast—for every one percentage point increase, a decrease on average of about 100 to 160 fewer votes cast per open school board seat on average. (In Ohio those elections are held in odd years and already tend to experience lower turnout than elections held in even years, which feature congressional and presidential elections.)
While substantial, those voting 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 tellingly, it did not show up in elections when pocketbook issues, like tax levies, were also on the ballot alongside school board positions.
The pattern was more pronounced in districts serving needy students, low-performing students, and black students—probably because those were the populations that the charter schools tended to serve, Lavertu surmised.
Finally, the pattern appears to have been caused not by previously active voters, but by depressing the number of new voters without a voting history in the past.
Good for Choice, Bad for Democracy?
The study doesn’t link specific parents to their voting records, so it’s unclear precisely the mechanism that produces these 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 enrollments led to disengagement from school district governance, the paper notes.
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 for tightening up the state’s charter laws and also authorizes some charter schools 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.”
How you view these results likely depends on your attitude toward charters to begin with. After all, if you view school districts as already mired in inefficiency and petty squabbles, then you might not be troubled by the idea that charters, set up to bypass that institution, are indeed having that effect.
Read more on civics education: Education Week’s Citizen Z project examines the causes and consequences of the United States’ civic crises and what it means for schools.
On the other hand, though, for those who believe that local school elections are the heart of American democracy, and that the health of the nation depends on the health of these local institutions, this is a potentially worrisome finding.
It’s unclear whether the Ohio results could apply in other states.
For one thing, states schedule school board elections in different ways, not always in odd-year elections. Charter school enrollments, after a period of impressive growth, have flattened off since 2013 or so. And state policies on their governance and expansion vary greatly. (Ohio, for that matter, also passed a major reform bill to its charter school policies in 2015.) It’s also not clear whether these results would look the same in a place that has higher or lower propotion of students in charters compared to the average Ohio district.
Still, the research has potential implications for election policy.
“If it ever became a bigger issue, and we really became concerned about those districts that have a really strong charter market share, they might want to consider moving to on-cycle election periods,” Aldis said.
And to the extent that it’s the families who send their children to charters who don’t vote, it is potentially short sighted, he added. If those parents ever decided to return to public schools—for example, when their children reach high school, where there are far fewer charters in Ohio—they will in effect be sending them to a system over which they exerted no influence.
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Photo: A polling worker enters a polling place in Charlotte, N.C.—Chuck Burton/AP
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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.