You are here

Make education politics great again! Eliminate 'off-cycle' school board elections

February 26, 2016


What if I told you I'd found a surefire way to decrease community involvement in our local schools while at the same time increasing the costs of providing education for taxpayers? Probably not a political winner, eh? And yet, for well over 100 years we've adopted such an approach to governing America's public schools.

I'm talking of course, about the widespread and increasingly questionable practice of local school district governments holding their school board elections “off-cycle” so that they are contested apart from regular national elections.

Just how significant and widespread are “off-cycle” school board elections? And what are the consequences of using off-cycle elections for the tone and direction of education policy? UC Berkeley Political Scientist Sarah Anzia recently penned a terrific book examining the causes and consequences of off-cycle elections in American politics in which she finds that 90 percent of states hold at least some municipal races apart from major national elections and three quarters of states do so for school board elections. Data from the National School Boards Association seem to confirm Anzia's descriptive account on the prevalence of these elections.

By exploiting the occasional episode in which a change in state law forced localities to move their elections “on cycle,” Anzia is able to provide some pretty rigorous causal evidence that off-cycle elections decrease voter turnout and equip organized interests (e.g. teachers unions) to obtain more favorable policy outcomes. Anzia's findings mesh nicely with other work done by University of Pennsylvania Political Scientist, Marc Meredith, who found that when school boards are given the authority to choose election dates for raising revenue (e.g. bond elections) boards will “manipulate” the timing of elections in predictable ways to ensure an electorate that is most favorable to increased school spending.

You can read the full article here.