Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts

By Michael B. Berkman; Eric Plutzer | Go to book overview

chapter five
Voting Rights, Electoral
Systems, and Policy
Responsiveness

Most school board elections are low-key affairs often held apart from more exciting and competitive national and state elections. If there is no controversial issue on the immediate agenda, there will likely be little campaigning and little discussion of the issues. Participation is usually minimal, turnout low, and the content of the campaign trivial unless the public is particularly dissatisfied by a recent policy decision. Candidates often run unopposed and unaffiliated with political parties (McDermott 1999). One could easily conclude that school board elections are not very important. Can that be? After all, our theory of school board responsiveness requires links between board members and the public. As we saw in chapter 4, though most states offer some meaningful degree of referendum power, only a small number of states allow residents to vote directly on school budgets. Policy responsiveness varies according to the type of referendum system but does not depend on direct democracy. Public opinion is clearly related to spending outcomes in the many dependent and independent districts that have no referenda of any kind. We show that throughout most of the nation the method of choosing school board members is important to how public opinion is translated into policy decisions. We do so by showing how electoral and selection rules shape who is chosen, and we explore whether this has implications for how well board decisions reflect community preferences.

Consider, for example, the Hinds County school district in Mississippi, which serves more than 5,000 students in eleven schools. In 1987 the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a census of all governments in the

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