| July 1, 2011

Spring School-Board Elections Are Bad for Democracy

In a fascinating study of interest group influence on school board elections, Stanford political scientist Sarah Anzia offers new reasons for dropping special spring school-district elections.

And, as if on cue (though I don’t know that there is any causal relationship), education reform governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana signed into law, according to Sean Cavanagh of Ed Week, “a measure to make major changes to school board elections around his state.” The change in Indiana would move school board elections (from the spring) to the fall, said Daniels in his recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), because “nobody votes” in the spring elections: “It’s a lot easier … for an interest group to dominate the outcome and elect a friendly school board in the sparsely attended primary elections. And so now they will have more of the public at least eligible or at least on hand to take part in those elections, we’ll see if it makes a difference.”

According to Anzia’s research, it should make a big difference. In a country with more than 500,000 elected officials, most of whom are not elected on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (the so-called regular cycle elections), she finds that school districts “with off-cycle elections pay experienced teachers over 3 percent more than districts

that hold on-cycle elections.” Not surprisingly, the pay differential increased for the most senior teachers: those with more than 10 years of experience received 4.2 percent more money in districts with off-cycle elections. This is a fairly big deal since, as Anzia reports, citing Rick Hess, more than half of our school district elections are off-cycle.

And the reason for this significant correlation between election cycle and pay for teachers? Daniels told his AEI audience that in these poor-turnout, off-cycle elections, interest group power is more concentrated. Says Anzia: “Members of organized interest groups that have a large stake in a particular election turn out to vote in high numbers regardless of whether other elections are on the ballot at the same time. Therefore, they make up a greater proportion of the total vote when that election is held off-cycle.”

Not surprisingly, the most organized interest groups in education are teachers and their unions. Not only that, says Anzia, “a primary goal of teacher unions across the country is to secure higher salaries for public school teachers.”

It works. In Indiana, Gov. Daniels noted, the election change bill was so threatening to school boards that, “as that bill moved near passage … school boards in some cases were rushing to finalize [teacher union] contracts before the law was effected.”

The well-intentioned folks who believed that separating school district elections from the hurly-burly of the hoi-polloi would result in something more dignified and professional—well, apparently, they were wrong. It’s the same old mercenary spirit at work. Join the crowd, educators.

As Anzia concludes, “As it happens, something as seemingly simple as the date of an election can have substantial consequences for the composition of the electorate and the content of public policy.”

Or, as Thomas Jefferson might have said, had he lived longer, democracy is no cakewalk.

A former news editor of Life magazine, Peter Meyer (master’s degree in history, University of Chicago) is an editor at Education Next.

Loading Next