Competition and Democratic Accountability

    This study examines the dynamic interplay between the competitiveness of public schools--as suggested by measurable student outcomes and the extent to which parents “exit” their low performing public schools--and voters’ propensity to hold elected officials accountable for school performance. Researchers collected data from South Carolina for the most extensive, systematic analysis conducted to date.  They have also prepared additional public opinion experiments to further explore ways in which citizens evaluate and formulate opinions about education policy.

    Results from South Carolina’s 2000 elections, in which student learning trends and the state’s accountability system were prominent features, show that voters evaluate school board members on the basis of student learning trends. In 2002 and 2004, however, as public attention shifted to other education issues, evidence of retrospective voting quickly vanished. In models that estimate incumbent vote share, decisions to run for re-election, and the presence of competition in the 2002 and 2004 elections, null effects consistently arise.

    Where public opinion regarding education policy is concerned, findings suggest that Americans both care about their schools and want them to improve. Though adults give the nation’s public schools only mediocre grades, they are willing to invest more money in public education and are reasonably confident that doing so will improve student learning. They are also open to a host of school reforms--high-stakes student accountability, merit pay for teachers, school vouchers and tax credits. By sizable margins, they back reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). However, the public also appears selective in its desire for change. Americans balk at some market-based reforms, such as paying more for teachers who work in hard-to-fill subjects like math and science. And substantial percentages remain undecided about charter schools and other reform initiatives. Where school per-pupil expenditures are concerned, Americans know little, and when they are informed about per-pupil spending, their support for additional spending attenuates.

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The NCSC is funded by a 5 year, $13.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. Its lead institution is Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The center is housed on the campus of Peabody College, one of the nation's top graduate schools of education.