Small school districts fare worse when superintendents are elected rather than appointed.

When it comes time for you to buy a new vehicle, would you only look at cars for sale in your neighborhood? Obviously not. You’d check dealerships around the city, the state, or maybe even the region. You’d want find a vehicle that matched your specifications (price, MPG, color, etc…) regardless of where it came from.

If you were restricted to your neighborhood, there’s a lower chance that you’ll find the vehicle you want. Electing school district superintendents follows the same principle, so why do so many Mississippi districts still do it?

There are 14,500 school districts in the United States. In 99 percent of districts it is the local school board’s responsibility to hire the most qualified superintendent to lead the district. But for the other 1 percent, district superintendents are selected via popular election.

Below is a map that shows which states elect a portion of their district superintendents. Of the 154 elected superintendents in the U.S., 69 are in Mississippi — the most of any state.

Number of Elected Superintendents in U.S. 

154 of the 14,500 district superintendents countrywide are elected (~1%)

Below is an interactive map of the 151 different school districts in Mississippi. The districts shaded red elect their superintendent and the districts shaded green appoint their superintendent.

Mississippi School Districts by Superintendent Selection Method

69 of Mississippi’s 151 Superintendents Are Elected (45%)

Elections reduce the available talent pool

School districts either appoint or elect their superintendent based on how the district boundaries are defined. Elected superintendents come from districts shaped by county borders (e.g. Yazoo County School District) while appointed superintendents mostly serve in districts shaped by municipal districts (e.g. Jackson Public Schools).

Opponents of elected superintendents argue that elections narrow the talent pool to choose a qualified superintendent from due to the residency restriction that requires candidates running for election to live within the district itself. Meanwhile, in school districts where superintendents are appointed, the school boards can recruit and select qualified candidates from different districts or even different states. Appointing superintendents may be especially practical in a state like Mississippi where small school districts may not have many qualified candidates, and those that are qualified may be uninterested in campaigning.

To make it worse, many of these school district leaders are given the job by default. Thirteen school districts had uncontested races for superintendent in the 2011 elections, according to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s website. In 2007, 20 races were uncontested, and in one district, no one ran at all.

What does it mean for student outcomes?

Despite a limited talent pool, at first glance, school districts with elected superintendents appear to perform no worse on average than districts with appointed superintendents.

According to the most recent statistics available from the Mississippi Department of Education, average graduation rates in appointed and elected districts are nearly identical (73.3 percent and 73.5 percent, respectively). The same is true for average state test scores. Below are a series of density graphs that show student outcomes in districts with appointed and elected school superintendents are indistinguishable.

“Density” on the vertical axis represents the percentage of districts that have a given value on the horizontal axis. For instance, in the left graph, 6 percent of districts with elected superintendents have a graduation rate of exactly 75 percent. You can think about it as a smoothed histogram.

Superintendents-GradRatesSuperintendents-TestScores

 

The problem with relying on average student outcomes alone is that they may hide differences based on characteristics other than the selection of the superintendent. When you take into account per-pupil expenditures, percentage of students in poverty, racial composition, and student-to-teacher ratio, a multiple regression analysis reveals that districts with elected superintendents have graduation rates roughly 4.5 percentage points lower than districts that appoint (statistically significant at the 0.05 level). However, that difference essentially disappears as districts increase in size. This evidence seems to support the “talent pool” hypothesis.

Small districts fare worse with elected superintendents

To be qualified to campaign for superintendent in a district that elects, a candidate must have established residency in the district. Therefore, districts with a low population (reflected by low enrollment) may be less likely to have a highly-qualified superintendent among their ranks compared to districts with greater population.

Below is a table of average graduation rates in the two types of districts based on different total enrollment cutoffs.

Graduation Rates by District Size
Appointed: Graduation RatesElected: Graduation RatesSample
73.34% (n=73)73.46% (n=65)Full Sample
73.91% (n=39)71.88% (n=25)Districts with fewer than 2,000 Students
73.02% (n=20)63.87% (n=8)Districts with fewer than 1,100 Students

As mentioned earlier, average graduation rates in districts with appointed and elected superintendents are almost the same (73.3 percent and 73.5 percent, respectively). But a gap begins to appear when you look at Mississippi’s smaller school districts.

In districts with less than 2,000 students, the average graduation rate in districts with appointed superintendents is 74 percent, meanwhile it is 72 percent in elected districts. A modest difference.

In districts with less than 1,100 students, the average graduation rate in appointed districts is 73 percent – hardly any different from the average graduation rate for all appointed districts. But in elected districts of the same size, the average graduation drops to 64 percent – a dramatic decrease. Admittedly, there are only eight districts that have fewer than 1,100 students and an elected superintendent, so the sample is not large.

However, it appears that when enrollment is low (fewer than ~2,000 students), average graduation rates tend to be higher in districts with appointed superintendents. But as enrollment increases, the difference in average graduation rate evaporates.

Change coming soon?

Moving to appointed superintendents has been a priority of the state Board of Education for years, but bills to do so have repeatedly died in the Legislature. However, the issue seems to be gaining political momentum. Last year, a bill to move to appointed superintendents by 2016 passed the Senate before falling short in the House. In this year’s session, both the Senate and House education committee chairmen have introduced bills to abolish superintendent elections, and observers expect them to be given strong consideration.

The above evidence suggests that appointing superintendents would have a positive impact on student outcomes, especially for those in the least-populated areas. It’s time for Mississippi lawmakers to give every school district — regardless of size — the opportunity to hire the most qualified leader.


Front page image courtesy of Keith Ivey.

 

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