On School Boards and Policy Shocks

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The dissertation process has many steps. The prospectus or proposal is one of the last. Awhile ago I was lucky enough to have my dissertation proposal defense and pass!  My project is seeking to understand the linkage between political activity at the state level and voter and candidate participation at the local level. To evaluate this, I take the case of Wisconsin–an extreme example of domain specific policy activity–and see if the events of the last two years in Wisconsin, particularly around education reform, drove more candidates and more voters to participate in school board elections statewide. 

There are over 14,000 school boards in the United States, and they are responsible for expenditures equal to those of the US Department of Defense annually. However, little is known about the democratic process by which individuals on school boards come into office. Some work has been done on large urban school boards, but this work has largely concerned itself with either the question of mayoral control, or of district wide vs. regional board electoral districts. The broader question of whether or not school boards are democratic institutions that respond to community pressures and have meaningful participation has only been studied intermittently since the 1970s. Worse, the political dynamics between state and federal policymaking and local participation in school board elections has received little or no attention over this same period, despite a large increase in both state and federal involvement over this time period. 

Classic model of dissatisfaction theory as presented by Wu 1995

The dissatisfaction model is a nice theoretical model, but it leaves something to be desired in terms of generating predictions and allowing us to understand the school board as part of democratic system. It only describes the actions of the board, but not of the voters deciding to vote, and the congruence between voter beliefs and voter turnout.

In my research I found a political science dissertation out of Stanford that helped with this. Wu 1995 proposed a much more fully developed game-theoretic model of the interaction between voters, board members, and policy. The model is depicted below. 

Wu 1995 Model of Political Game for School Boards

This is a classic game theoretical model, simplified here, explaining conditions under which various actors undertake certain actions. The most important feature is that the decision of voters to vote based on policy decisions, and board members base policy decisions on the likelihood of voters voting and defeating them. This paints a much more comprehensive system than the dissatisfaction theory, but builds on that theory nicely. Wu’s work also dovetails well with the work of other scholars trying to incorporate public choice models (Rada 1987, 1988). 

These innovations are necessary to help understand the Wisconsin political context. The main puzzle of school board elections is whether or not they retain features of a democratic entity. Rational choice theory does a lot to help move the discussion away from school boards having to have high turnout elections to be considered democratic–indeed, if the school board is passing policy in line with voters preferences there is no need for voters to vote in this case. However, no serious empirical tests of the models above have been conducted to understand their predictive power and how closely they reflect reality.

The timeline below gives a picture of political activity in education at the state level in Wisconsin. This historic and unprecedented political and policy activity focused very closely around issues related to education–school budget cuts, reduction in collective bargaining rights for public workers, etc.– allows a test of the democratic linkages between state and local policy. There is no doubt that state level politics in Wisconsin have never seen a more active electorate.

Wisconsin Political Timeline 2011-Present

If state and local politics are linked in their activity levels, then we should see corresponding increases in the activity levels of citizens participating in local elections. In fact, in policy areas of high contestation at the state level, we would expect strong increases in political activity at the local level as well. The figure below attempts to understand how state and local politics might be linked. 

Knowles Model of Wisconsin School Boards

The essential belief is that the number of challengers in an election for school board is influenced by the congruence of voter preferences vis a vis the state policy changes, the overall support for the controversial reforms of Governor Walker, and the strength of independent interest groups–particularly teachers’ unions–in the school district. All of these determine the policy decisions of school boards both in making budget reductions in response to the fiscal tightening in the new state budget, and in decisions to suspend or extend union contracts in response to the new local authority given to districts in bargaining with public employees. 

This is in turn linked the voter participation. Voters will only turn out in elections that present serious choices of candidates, but they may not uniformly turn out in these cases. Finally, the results of the election have an impact on the make up of the board and possibly on the policy direction of the board depending on the number of incumbents defeated. The table below summarizes the expected relationships between dependent and independent variables in the study. 

Dependent Variable Independent Variable Expected Relationship
Candidate Participation Unity on State Policy Negative
Candidate Participation Prior Challenger Emergence Null
Voter Participation Prior Turnout Positive
Voter Participation Number of Challengers Positive
Voter Participation Policy Divergence Positive
Union Policy Union Strength Policy Resistance
Union Policy Walker Support Policy Support
Budget Policy Budgetary Health (up) Fewer cuts
Budget Policy Walker Support Greater Cuts

A few rows need to be explained. In the first row, the more unified a community is in support of Governor Walker’s policies, the less likely there will be emergence of a higher than usual number of candidates because of policy stability in the district. Prior challenger emergence, then, should yield little predictive effect because of the changed policy environment.

For voter participation, policy divergence is a critical variable. Here, policy divergence means the split among voters in their support of the policies enacted at the state level over the last two years. The wider the divergence, the more likely the election will be contested and voters have reason to mobilize and participate.

For union policy, the stronger the union in a district–not surprisingly–the more likely the school board should be to resist the policies at the state level, if possible. This will be counteracted by the strength of support for the governor among the electorate.

Finally, for budget policy, the healthier the budget of a district, the fewer cuts in the budget should be experienced. Net of that, districts with high support for the Governor should experience greater cuts.


That, in a nutshell, is the dissertation proposal. You can read more about it by reading the official abstract submitted to my political science department, or the full proposal, both available here. I encourage you to do so, and to check back here as the project progresses!

To leave a comment for the author, please follow the link and comment on their blog: Data, Evidence, and Policy - Jared Knowles.

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