Failing schools bring out voters, but unequally

Information about failing schools brings affluent White citizens to the voting booths in local school board elections but exerts much less influence on the voting behavior of poor, Black, or Hispanic voters, research published over the last year shows.


Graffiti in San Francisco, April 2012 (Kodak Views / Flickr Creative Commons)

When public schools receive failing grades, turnout increases in local school board elections, according to research from Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. However, turnout increases unequally, with very different results among the rich and the poor.

White, affluent citizens who were already more likely to vote do so in significantly greater numbers after their local schools are labeled “failing,” writes John Holbein, a doctoral student in public policy at Duke University. Voters who were previously unlikely to vote are only slightly more likely to go to the polls after school grades are issued.

Mr Holbein’s study, “Left Behind? Citizen Responsiveness to Government Performance Information,” is forthcoming in the American Political Science Review. He looked at local school board races from 2004-2012 in North Carolina communities where schools failed to make adequate yearly progress as defined by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.

“In the United States, voter turnout is low and unequal,” he was quoted as saying in a press release. “There is plenty of research showing that more advantaged people are more active voters. There’s also clear evidence that lack of information is a barrier to civic engagement. I wanted to find out if providing citizens with information about school performance helps address or exacerbates imbalances in turnout.”

He showed that information that schools are “failing,” a determination made primarily on the basis of student performance on standardized tests, is correlated with an increase in voter turnout in school board elections on the order of 5 to 8 percent. However, the mobilizing effect he found was “more than five times larger for individuals who had previously voted” than those who had not.

From this, he mistakenly jumps to the conclusion that White, affluent voters care more about their schools, or at least think they can actually bring about change through the instruments of democracy, more than Black, Hispanic, or poor voters.

That’s an important issue worth doing research on. Unfortunately, information about school performance and the entire “failing school” plot is sent to the voting public, in all areas, through test scores, not through any valid measure of education or learning. Assuming a certain group responds differently to test score information is not the same thing as assuming people are responding to information about school performance or school quality. The one has almost nothing to do with the other, except perhaps in a small percentage of math and reading.

Earlier work by Patrick Flavin, also at Duke University, and Michael T Hartney, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Lake Forest College in Illinois, also indicates that people who vote are more affected by the performance of students at mostly-White schools in more affluent neighborhoods than they are by the performance of mostly-Black or -Hispanic schools in poorer neighborhoods.

Messrs Flavin and Hartney analyzed more than 1,000 school board elections in California and found evidence—a high correlation—that voters reward or punish incumbent board members based on changes in White student performance while, in contrast, the performance of African-American and Hispanic students fails to generate any electoral accountability.

To better understand why local electorates appear to exhibit racial bias in the “running tally” they use to evaluate incumbent school board members, they noted that roughly half of all Americans are unaware of the racial achievement gap in schooling and, among those who are aware, the vast majority believe the gap is caused by factors outside of schools’ (and, by extension, school board members’) control.

The flaw in all of this research, from an educational perspective, is that it bases conclusions on the results of standardized tests, on which White and affluent students perform significantly better than Black, Hispanic, or poor students anyway. The tests are neither a valid nor a reliable measure of school quality, so they aren’t likely to affect the political activity of people who understand what the real indicators of school quality are.

Furthermore, just because the No Child Left Behind law made standardized tests the defining moment for school accountability doesn’t mean those test scores have anything to do with how schools are actually performing. People in the communities know that, and those in poor communities simply know it more than those in affluent communities.

I would expect a significantly different response simply because poor people know the tests, on which those “failing” scores are based, are biased against them. Showing that their schools are failing, therefore, is not likely to inspire them to get out and vote. They know the test scores don’t mean anything.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.