In school districts across the nation, voters elect fellow citizens to their local school boards and charge them with the core tasks of district management: hiring administrators, writing budgets, negotiating teacher contracts, and determining standards and curriculum, among them. Whatever the task, the basic purpose of all school board activities is to facilitate the day-to-day functioning of schools. If board members do their jobs well, schools should do a better job of educating students.
Not surprisingly, school board members agree that one of their most important goals is to help students learn. According to a 2002 national survey, student achievement ranks second only to financial concerns as school board members' highest priority. We wondered, though, do voters hold school board members accountable for the academic performance of the schools they oversee? Do they support sitting board members when published student test scores rise? Do they vote against members when schools and students struggle under their watch?
Existing accountability policies assume that they do: states shine light on school performance by providing the public with achievement data. Voters and parents are expected to make use of these data in choosing school districts or schools, and to hold administrators and school board members accountable for the schools' performance at each election. The idea is that voters will replace incumbents with new members when performance is poor and support incumbents over challengers when performance is strong. Indeed, there are very few other ways in which district officials can be held accountable for school performance. Neither the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) nor the states impose direct sanctions on members of school boards that oversee large numbers of underperforming schools.
Our questions led us to undertake the first large-scale study of how voters and candidates respond to student learning trends in school board elections. We analyzed test-score data and election results from 499 races over three election cycles in South Carolina to study whether voters punish and reward incumbent school board members on the basis of changes in student learning, as measured by standardized tests, in district schools. In addition, we assessed the impact of school performance on incumbents' decisions to seek reelection and potential challengers' decisions to join the race.
We found that in the 2000 elections, South Carolina voters did appear to evaluate school board members on the basis of student learning. Yet in the 2002 and 2004 elections, published test scores did not influence incumbents' electoral fortunes. As we'll see, the possible reasons our results differed so dramatically from one time period to the next hold important implications for the design of school accountability policies. But let's first take a closer look at our methods and findings.
Once we set out to study local school board races, we encountered tall hurdles to obtaining election results. Only one state, South Carolina, centrally collects precinct-level election data for school board races. In all other states, obtaining precinct-level election results requires gathering and organizing election returns from hundreds of individual counties and election districts.
So we took a close look at South Carolina. In most respects, South Carolina elections and school boards are similar to those across the rest of the country. All but 4 of the state's 46 counties hold nonpartisan school board elections. Approximately 80 percent of school board members receive some compensation, either a salary, per diem payments, or reimbursement for their expenses. Over 90 percent of South Carolina's 85 school boards have between 5 and 9 members, while the largest board has 11. And, as is common practice in other states, nearly 9 out of 10 South Carolina school districts hold board elections during the general election in November. …