Panel Paper: Donut Devourers, Fish Fanatics, and Eager Educators: Victors and Voices of State Education Policymaking

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Addams (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rachel White, Michigan State University

Over the past 15 years, Americans’ confidence in state government has begun to falter. Between 1997 and 2013, the percent of Americans’ with a favorable opinion of their state government declined at twice the rate (14 percent) as that of local government (7 percent) (Pew, 2013). At the same time that Americans have become less confident in state government, they have called upon state government to be more involved in education (Henderson, Peterson & West, 2015).

Recent policy trends would suggest that the preferences of the average American are being met: state governments have indeed become more active in making education policy (Henig, 2013; Kirst, 2010). However, this shift comes at a time when local school boards have become more representative of historically marginalized groups. Although local school boards have historically been comprised of white men (Kirst & Wirt, 2009), 44 percent of today’s local school board members are women (Hess & Meeks, 2010). In comparison, less than one in four state legislators is female, a ratio that has increased by less than four percentage points over the past sixteen years (NCSL, 2010). Moreover, racial minorities make up nearly 20 percent of today’s local school board members, nearly double the proportion of African American or Hispanic state legislators (Hess & Meeks, 2010; NALEO & NCSL, 2009; NBCSL & NCSL, 2009).

In sum, the nature of who is involved in making education policy is rapidly changing. At the local level, an increasingly diverse body of policymakers is in place with the potential for improved representation for marginalized groups. On the other hand, state-level policymakers have tightened education policymaking reins. Yet, we know very little about who state education policymakers are and how they go about making education policy decisions. Unlike local school boards, state education policymakers reside in numerous policymaking bodies, each with distinct rules, traditions, and norms. In this paper, I draw upon theories of institutionalism, representation, and policy responsiveness to examine (a) who gains state education policymaking power, (b) whose voices are heard in the state education policymaking process, and (c) the ways in which individual and institutional characteristics mediate the voices and victors in the state education policymaking process.

To explore these questions, I utilize demographic data of state legislators serving on education committees and State Board of Education (SBE) members across all 50 states, as well as data collected in an experiment-based survey of state education policymakers in 47 states and interviews with 45 state education policymakers located in six states. Although I find that state education policymakers are neither descriptively nor substantively representative of their constituents, considerable differences between state legislators and SBE members exist with regard to who they turn to when making education policy decisions. I argue that these results provide important insight into the way citizens think about the avenues through which they could engage, interact, and share important policy-relevant information and experiences with state education policymakers.


Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico, do not have an SBE and were not surveyed.