Translating Descriptive Representation into Substantive Representation: The Role of Electoral Institutions in Urban School Districts in Texas

By Markie McBrayer (University of Idaho)

Wichita Falls Independent School District (WFISD)—a school district in North Texas—was recently under scrutiny for unequal distribution of bilingual funding among their schools. In their school district, campuses with greater numbers and proportions of bilingual students received less total bilingual funding from the district. For instance, Zundy Elementary in WFISD received $32,000 for their 140 qualifying bilingual students, while Southern Hills Elementary received $236,000 in bilingual funding for their 88 qualifying students, suggesting vast inequities in the school district. Deborah Palmer, a professor of education equity and cultural diversity at the University of Colorado in Boulder, stated that unequal distributions of bilingual resources, like those seen in WFISD, are “fairly drastic inequities” and should be considered “a serious issue.” (For full story, please see Christopher Collins’ WFISD funds bilingual program disproportionately in Times Record News – Wichita Falls).

What’s to explain this unequitable distribution of funding for minority programs? Here, I argue that this inequality is a product of both electoral rules and the proportion of minorities who serve on local school boards. A significant portion of academic literature is devoted to how elected representatives of color will better advocate for those who share their racial and ethnic identity. To name a few, Leal and Hess (2000) find that a greater proportion of Latinos on school boards is associated with greater spending for bilingual programming. Rocha and Wrinkle (2011) also find that Latino representation on school boards increased bilingual expenditures in schools.

But minority representatives are not elected in a vacuum, and they may not always advocate for their co-ethnic constituents. They are elected to serve a specific set of constituents and, depending on which set of constituents, they might behave differently. For instance, minority representatives who were elected to serve a district (or geographic portion) of a city will behave differently than minority representatives who were elected by the entire city, since they are held responsible by different sets of people.

Imagine a minority school board member elected to serve the entire school district (or at-large). Likely voters in an at-large system are generally wealthy and white. Once elected, the school board member then owes her victory to those constituents who are wealthy and white, and thus represents those groups accordingly. As a consequence, the representative tends to favor students and schools associated with her likely voters—schools that are relatively wealthy and less diverse than the school district as a whole. She still has the opportunity to advocate for constituents who share her racial identity, but is most incentivized if the minority-targeted program is visible to likely voters. In other words, she may craft policy that benefits co-ethnic constituents, but primarily in schools affiliated with her likely voters (i.e., those that are wealthy and white). Conversely, poor, diverse schools are least visible to likely voters and, thus, least represented by the school board member elected at-large.

Now imagine the inverse—a minority school board member is elected to serve a district—or a geographic portion—of her city. Given that geography is so tightly linked to race and class, this suggests that a candidate elected to serve a district is not just likely to have a geographic constituency, but also a specific racial and ethnic constituency to whom they owe their election, and thus, whom they intend to emphasize in their representational efforts. As a consequence, she is more incentivized to advocate for co-ethnic constituents than if she were in the aforementioned at-large system.

In order to explore this question, I examined the racial and ethnic composition of school boards in urban Texas school districts and how much bilingual funding those school districts provided their local schools. I found that when there is a low proportion of Latino students in the local schools, minority representatives elected to serve both districts and the entire city were responsive to the needs of bilingual constituencies. In other words, minority representatives, regardless of how they were elected, advocated for bilingual funding in schools where there was a low proportion of students needing bilingual funding.

However, it is a different story for schools with high proportions of bilingual students. Latino representatives elected to serve a district increased funding for schools with high proportions of bilingual students. But Latino representatives elected to serve the entire city decreased bilingual funding for schools with higher proportions of bilingual students. This suggests that minority representation doesn’t always translate into policy that benefits those who share the representative’s racial or ethnic identity. Indeed, the rules under which they were elected likely shape who that representative is most (or least) responsive to. In this case, it seems as if being elected to serve the entire city comes at the expense of minority constituents.

So why should we care? It shows that electoral rules matter. They matter for how funding is distributed and to whom. Specifically, Latino students are more equitably served when their Latino school board members are elected to serve districts. Conversely, schools with a high proportion of Latino students receive less funding when their representatives are elected at-large. Moving forward, communities and local governments should consider how the rules of the game ultimately shape the policies provided and how equitably resources are distributed.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Author Biography

Markie McBrayer is a lecturer and incoming assistant professor at the University of Idaho. She received her PhD from the University of Houston. Prior to earning her doctorate, she received her master’s in urban and environmental policy and planning from Tufts University, and subsequently worked as an urban planner. She studies American politics and policy, with a focus on political institutions, representation, and social inequality in the American context, particularly at the local level.