Democracy Studies Seed Grant Leads to $632,000 Lyle Spencer Research Award

September 17, 2015

Research initially funded by a Democracy Studies seed grant has led to the award of a prestigious grant to Democracy Studies affiliates at The Ohio State University.

The interdisciplinary team of Ohio State professors Vladimir Kogan (Department of Political Science) and Stéphane Lavertu (John Glenn College of Public Affairs) received the $632,778 award from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation to fund a research project to examine how local voter control of public schools impacts student learning in the classroom and the day-to-day administration of American school districts.

Kogan and Lavertu, along with their co-principal investigator, Emory University political scientist Zachary Peskowitz, will be collecting a decade of data on local school district elections across 20 states and applying rigorous statistical techniques to understand how the politics of public education affect school administration, instruction, and student learning.

Dr. Stephane Lavertu is an Associate Professor at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs and is an Affiliated Faculty Member of Democracy Studies

Dr. Vlad Kogan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and an Affiliated Faculty Member of Democracy Studies.

Dr. Vlad Kogan is an Assistant Professor in Political Science and an Affiliated Faculty Member of Democracy Studies.

“Many popular education reforms — from dissemination of school report cards showing how students are doing to the opening of publicly funded charter schools — are based on the assumption that local democratic control over public school districts is broken. Many of these assumptions are based on faith, rather than facts. We have only a very limited understanding of voter behavior in these local elections, and how election results translate into the day-to-day administration of schools and student achievement in the classroom,” said Lavertu. The Education Governance and Accountability Project is designed to fill precisely this gap.

The three-year project builds on a pilot study the researchers recently completed in Ohio. The pilot study was funded by OSU’s Democracy Studies Program.

The findings from the Ohio pilot challenge much of the conventional wisdom about local school district elections. For example, the researchers found no evidence that lower ratings on state school report cards led to more electoral accountability for school board members. However, they did show that certain performance information influenced school levy elections — but in a perverse way, with voters withholding public funds from what they perceived to be low-performing schools, even when these schools were actually quite effective.

Another part of the pilot study showed that Ohio levy elections had an important impact on school district administration and student learning. The defeat of a levy resulted in one week less of student learning the following year, they found.

The funds from the Spencer Grant will be used to build on the Ohio pilot and expand data collection to at least 19 other states.

“Local school boards are the most common elected office in the country, yet very little research has examined them. Our findings to date raise important questions about how political processes shape public education in this country, and we expect that our work with the Spencer Foundation will lead to in even more important insights,” said Kogan.

Democracy Studies Speaker Series

The Democracy Studies Speaker Series has brought scholars from across the country to Ohio State to discuss important issues in democracy.  Funded in partnership with the Mershon Center, the series has featured topics including checks and balances, the purposes of the electoral college, political compromise, and money in politics, among others.

Past Democracy Studies Speakers have included:

  • Guy-Uriel Charles: Democracy’s Guardian? Understanding the Supreme Court’s Law and Politics Jurisprudence.
  • Morris P. Fiorina: The Breakdown in Representation in American Politics.
  • Jack L. Goldsmith: National Security Checks and Balances.
  • Tamara Keith: Washington’s Fiscal Fight: A View from the Fourth Estate.
  • Alex Keyssar: Why Do We Still Have and Electoral College?
  • James Kloppenberg: The American Democratic Tradition: From Roger Williams to Barack Obama.
  • Nancy Rosenblum: Anti-politics: The Utopian Turn in Democratic Theory.
  • Melissa Schwartzberg: Supermajority Rule and Democracy.
  • Dennis Thompson: The Challenge of Political Compromise.


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