School elections: What do we do about low voter turnout?

Harold Kwalwasser, September 16, 2013

[CUNY Institute for Education Policy, May 25, 2013]

Notwithstanding the millions of dollars spent in Los Angeles’ recent school board election, turnout was well below 20%, just as it was in the primary election in March.

It is part of a long-term decline that should leave us wondering what is going on. In the last fifty years, turnout has declined precipitously in Los Angeles. In the 1959 municipal election, for example, about 50% of registered voters cast a ballot for Mayor, and 40% participated in the school board election.

However, the problem, at least for school boards, is not just a Los Angeles phenomenon. The week before the election in LA, there were hundreds of votes for school boards and budgets in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. In almost every one of these elections, voter turnout was below 20%. In fact, even in wealthy Bergen County, New Jersey, the turnout averaged only about 10%.

The lesson here is profound — and discomfiting. Elections are how we hold our public institutions accountable. Ten percent turnouts don’t do that.

The Los Angeles Times, among others, has often noted, and sometimes lamented, that small turnouts allow special interest groups, like the LA teachers union, to dominate elections. While that is true, it misses the point: Why is it that one of the most important public institutions in our country’s second largest city, the Los Angeles Unified School District, draws so little attention from voters even though there is almost universal agreement that the long-term health of the city is dependent on its significantly improving its performance?

There have been all sorts of suggestions to improve the situation by changing the mechanics of school board elections. For instance, some people argue to move the election to coincide with the Presidential vote in November. Others want partisan elections, or the breakup of large districts like Los Angeles, which they think would make people feel closer to their schools.

However, dealing with mechanics really misses the point. People could go to the polls in odd numbered years in March and May if they wanted to. Nothing is holding them back. They just don’t seem to care.

Somewhere hiding beneath the clutter of all these sorts of arguments is a hard truth. People have got to believe their votes make a difference before they are going to take the time to vote. But they don’t.

Part of that may be rooted in the peculiarities of each district, and, when talking about LA, peculiarity may be the right term. But, as the data from elsewhere in the country demonstrates, things are not much better even where one would expect them to be — the small districts that serve the wealthy suburbs of places like New York City.

What, then, is the problem common to schools across the country? I would suggest that it has a lot to do with a fifty-year history of taking policy-making authority away from the districts and handing it to states and the federal government. Given the history of districts in the 1960s, especially their responses to integration, one can understand why the change happened. But there have been consequences. When one thinks of how our schools run, what comes first to mind? Washington’s No Child Left Behind Act or, if you are a Californian, Governor Brown’s new education budget.. I doubt one in one thousand people would say something that happened at a recent school board meeting.

And yet, while the perceived focus may be elsewhere, our school districts remain the fulcrum for school reform. They deliver the services. You can dictate all you want from Washington or Sacramento, but without the active embrace of the teachers and administrators of a district, all you get is begrudging, box-checking compliance. A recent study by UC Davis professor Tom Timar reached the unsurprising conclusion that “better organized” districts spent their federal reform dollars better than those that were not.

You wind up with a frustrating stand off. School districts which are closest to the people they serve are often resistant, or indifferent, to high-performance and the effort required to get there. Washington and Sacramento or Albany may have more interest, but really only a limited ability to make it happen.

There is not a great solution in the short-term. However, as this country grapples with rewriting No Child Left Behind, and the California Legislature tackles school funding, we should draw two lessons from our current predicament: First, dictating more and more policy from the top down is not likely to work, and second, federal and state policy should encourage districts to take their policy roles far more seriously than they have in the recent past.

One example: The Obama Administration’s first rounds of grants under its Race to the Top program, asked states to come up with creative ways to improve schools. The grants, which totaled roughly $4 billion dollars, are now being implemented. Some are doing well, but many are having middling or little success because the school district that have to put them into practice are only half-hearted about what they have to do to get their hands on the money.

The most recent round of grants, however, directly asked districts to make their own plans. While those grants have only recently been disbursed, the first impression is that the success rate will be better because the districts spending the money really believe in what they are going to do.

In other words, state and federal policy-makers have to stop thinking that they should be the only ones designing reform. Instead, they should push districts to take change seriously. Maybe we can then get those voter turnouts back up because people will know that what goes on at school board meetings really affects their children’s future.

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