Study: S.C. school board members often re-elected despite district woes

University of Chicago researchers examine accountability

COLUMBIA -- Incumbent school board members in South Carolina who govern low-performing districts have little trouble winning re-election, a study by two University of Chicago researchers found.

The professors at the Harris School of Public Policy drew that conclusion after analyzing results from 499 elections between 2000 and 2004. The goal was to determine whether S.C. "voters hold school board members accountable for the academic performance of the schools they oversee."

The duo looked at standardized test scores and did a complex statistical comparison to gauge whether there is a correlation between student performance and election results.

"We ... were unable to find any indication that voters cast their ballots based on changes in test scores," according to an article they co-wrote for Education Next, a quarterly publication of the Hoover Institution based at Stanford University.

Why study S.C.?

William Howell, one of the researchers, said he and Christopher Berry picked South Carolina because the state has the nation's only central repository of local school board election results and it uses a testing system that gets high marks for its rigor.

Howell said he and Berry wanted to see how federal and state school reform laws that made student performance more transparent influenced voters.

"We thought there is at least a chance that with all the new information, voters would take advantage of it to hold people who are in charge accountable," Howell said Monday.

In 2000, if scores were low, an incumbent might be less likely to run, more likely to face a challenge and "the winning margin would be smaller," Howell said. That was the second year Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests, or PACT, were administered and the first year results were recorded.

By 2002 and again in 2004, Howell said he and Berry detected a change in voter reaction. "I couldn't predict any of those things," Howell said.

The study's results come as no surprise to Rep. Bob Walker, the House education committee chairman and a former school trustee in Spartanburg County.

"Most people fuss at us (lawmakers) in Columbia and they don't put the proper emphasis on holding the local school board accountable," the Upstate Republican said.

"Yes, we need to be held accountable for what we do for public education. But the most direct person is the local board member. Voters need to be insisting on everything possible from their board members that the problems in their local schools are addressed," Walker said.

Harold Stowe of Pawleys Island, chairman of the state school reform oversight panel, called the study's finding "an interesting premise."

"I really don't have a handle on whether there's been a lot of change in school board composition in areas having problems," Stowe said. "It's interesting they've found that there are voters maybe not as informed as they should be."

Researchers also studied media coverage of S.C.'s adoption of a universal standardized testing program and found a gradual shift in reporting that "portrayed considerably more skepticism in ... student achievement trends." They noted educators also challenged the validity of tests some experts characterized as among the toughest in the country.

Paul Krohne, director of the S.C. School Boards Association, found "nothing earth-shattering" in the Howell-Berry report. "A bit underwhelming, in fact," he said.

"It does confirm the fact that parents and members of the community feel good about schools in their immediate neighborhoods and they reject the overall picture that politicians frequently project about our schools by using a single test score to indicate the effectiveness of our public schools," Krohne said.

Howell, however, said, "I would sound a note of alarm.

"There did appear to be a moment in time when the state was holding school board members accountable for observed changes in student learning. It seems to me that is exactly what you want to hold school board members accountable for."