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Feb. 18, 2010 Volume 31, No. 20

Voter turnout impacts schools

While much of the national education reform debate has focused on funding and teacher qualification issues, few have addressed the role of citizen involvement in local education policy making. MU political science researcher David Webber has examined the link between school board elections and local school performance, and found a correlation between increased turnout for school board elections and state assessment scores.

“Education researchers know that parental involvement makes a difference, but few political scientists have asked: does voting make a difference?” Webber says. “Because voter turnout and candidate competition in school district elections reflect a district’s social capital, these characteristics of school board elections should affect how schools perform and be valued as a means for improving school performance. To encourage citizen involvement, school districts should host forums to discuss important issues and send newsletters to keep citizens informed of school progress.”

In his study, Webber examined official Missouri election records and 206 Missouri school districts’ records. During the 1998 to 2001 school board elections, on average 22 percent of voters cast ballots. Webber found that a 1 percent increase in school board election voter turnout correlated to increased state assessment scores by more than one point. Unexpectedly, he found that candidate competition and graduation rates have a negative correlation, suggesting that school districts with lower graduation rates attract more candidates than do school districts with higher graduation rates.