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Voting Gap Yawns After Schools Get Failing Grades

Seeing local schools poorly ranked for quality can drive more voters to the polls for school board elections—but it tends to spur only affluent residents who said they were likely to vote anyway.

In a Duke University study forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, public policy researcher John Holbein analyzed North Carolina school board races from 2004 to 2012 in communities where schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under federal accountability. 

On average, voters whose local school failed to make AYP had higher turnout in the next school board election by 5 to 8 percentage points—more than the average effect of direct mail or phone campaigns. In North Carolina, where many of the school board races during the study were close, Holbein found the turnout boost was as large or larger than the winning candidate's margin of victory at least a third of the time. In about a quarter of the elections studied, it likely swung the race.

However, rating a school as "failing" didn't spur voters across the board. Rather, those who had voted in prior school board elections were more than five times likelier to vote in response to a local school's failing grade than those who had not voted in the last election. Moreover, Holbein found that failures of local elementary and middle schools drove stronger voter turnout than did failing high schools.

"While reforms like No Child Left Behind empower local communities with valuable information, this information is not enough to mobilize poor families, thus leaving behind the group that No Child Left Behind explicitly sought to help,'' Holbein said in a statement about the study.

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