Building Public Schools in the City: The Role of Neighborhood Context on Voter Support for School Bonds

By Rachel Moskowitz (Trinity College)

With American cities’ socio-economic cleavages and ethnic diversity growing, policy making on urban public school issues has become ever more complex. For instance, what happens when the majority of voters are of a different racial group than a majority of the students in a city? One of the primary responsibilities of municipal government is the provision of public goods for its residents. Public education is one of the most substantial of these public goods. Decisions about education are often controversial; local education policy and politics are hotly contested and the outcomes can dramatically impact the lives of metropolitan residents. Moreover, citizens often play a particularly acute role in these public school decisions. In certain cases, elected officials do not determine these policies; rather, citizens decide directly when voting in local referenda. I argue that voters are likely to take into account the beneficiaries of the policy. Voters will infer who the beneficiaries are using both city-level factors and their own neighborhood context. My paper in Urban Affairs Review explores how individual voters might be affected by both their own neighborhood environment and citywide ethnic changes on a specific vote choice about the distribution of local public school benefits.

This is an increasingly relevant issue. The potential racial and ethnic differences between the voting population and the directly affected population (public school population) are of growing consequence given the population changes underway. For one, while non-Latino Whites already register and vote at higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups in general elections, they are even more likely to turn out in off-cycle elections when many education initiatives are on the ballot (Button 1993). Furthermore, recent immigrants, whether documented or not, lack citizenship, and, thus, will be unable to vote. On the other hand, the racial composition of both the school-age and public school populations have begun to shift significantly. Starting in 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau found that fewer than half (49.9%) of three-year old children were White (Frey 2011). These trends are then intensified by the fact that Whites are more likely to send their children to private schools than other groups. Thus, as the public school population continues to change considerably (by 2008 more than 60% of public school students were Black or Hispanic in the 100 largest school districts), evidence indicates that the voting population will not keep pace; this creates a significant racial mismatch between the voters and the public school population.

In order to better understand support patterns for school policy in this ethnically complex voter – student environment we must couple questions of self-interest with a consideration of how voters may be affected by their views of the policy beneficiaries. This is particularly true since public education is fairly unique; only a portion of the population use these services – those with children in public schools. In school bond referenda, voters are directly asked whether or not to assess a bond (which they will then pay for through their taxes) and about a specific policy preference – whether or not to build new schools in their community. I suggest that voters will perceive these school issues through the lenses of both their neighborhood and city-wide school district ethnic contexts and  these will affect their support for school referenda.

In the literature, there are two basic approaches to understanding racial and ethnic interactions. Racial threat theory argues that in the context of stress the dominant group will act negatively toward the outsider group. Rapid growth in the outsider or non-dominant group often generates a stressful context. Conversely, contact theory argues that proximity between dominant and outsider groups can build positive attitudes if it takes place in a non-stressful context such as stability in the size of the outsider group.

I used a unique 1996 voting dataset from Houston Independent School District (HISD) to explore both theories. Houston lends itself to this dual task since in this period it had one rapidly growing non-dominant group (Latinos) and one relatively stable non-dominant group (Blacks). In Houston, I find that neighborhood context impacts vote choice and argue this is due to perceptions about the beneficiaries of public schools. Racial threat theory predicts that a citywide growing minority group heightens racial fears for individuals in other race groups and the salience of this is strongest for those individuals living in closest proximity to large concentrations of this growing minority group. As this theory suggests I find that the higher the Latino population in a neighborhood, the less likely non-Latinos (both White and Black) were to support the bond. Support for the referendum drops over 13 percentage points as the percentage of Latinos in the neighborhood increases. A non-Latino voter has 51.85% likelihood of supporting the referendum in a neighborhood without any Latinos, but only a 37.89% probability of supporting the referendum in an over 95% Latino neighborhood.

Looking at contact theory, I focus on Whites’ neighborhood interaction with Blacks (a non-growing, non-dominant group). Social contact theory suggests that Whites and Blacks would have an opportunity for more positive interactions in neighborhoods when there are higher numbers of Blacks than in the lowest-density Black neighborhoods. The findings generally support this (but are slightly more speculative for methodological reasons). A White voter in a neighborhood with less than 1% of Black residents has only a 34.61% probability of supporting the referendum, but a similar White voter in the highest density Black neighborhood would have a 51.57% probability of supporting the school bond. In looking at this Houston education case, we can see evidence of the complexity of mulit-racial interactions and vote choice in a highly diverse city.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo of MFAH Glassel School of Art in Houston by Jessica Tan on Unsplash

Author Biography

Rachel L. Moskowitz is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy & Law at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Her research and teaching examines American public policy, political behavior, and urban and education politics.