Theses Doctoral

Local Control and Educational Inequality: Three Longitudinal, Quantitative Studies of School District Governance in the United States

Mellon, Greer

The 13,000 school districts in the United States are important institutional sites where consequential educational policy decisions – from school zoning to local funding initiatives– are contested and implemented. Despite their importance as institutions, there is very little quantitative research on school district leadership and governance. We do not currently know if the identity of school district leaders has any effect on the academic performance of school districts, or if school district leaders from different backgrounds tend to advance different educational policies for their districts.

In this dissertation, I leverage new longitudinal datasets on superintendent and school board tenures, matched to data on district-level achievement and policy variation, to examine how school district leadership may matter for students’ educational experiences. This dissertation consists of three empirical papers that examine different aspects of school district leadership and governance.

Chapter 1 uses a novel dataset of superintendent employment histories in 26 states, matched to student achievement data, to estimate variation in superintendent effectiveness. I use data on superintendents who move between multiple school districts as an estimation strategy to separate superintendent effects from other district-level factors that affect student achievement. To estimate superintendent effectiveness, I adapt value-added modeling strategies from the principal and teacher effects literature, and use simulation analyses to further justify my modeling approaches. Across model specifications, I find that the standard deviation of superintendent effects ranges from 0.03-0.10 SD on student achievement. These are moderate effect sizes, and indicate the importance of studying school district leadership as a factor that can have important implications for student-level outcomes.

Chapter 2 examines the superintendent appointment process using mixed methods data from California and Florida over the past decade from 2009-2019. Given that superintendents serve important political functions within school districts, I examine whether school board members tend to appoint superintendents who share their own partisan political affiliations. During this period, I do not find any evidence that school boards prefer to hire co-partisan superintendents. Instead, school boards prioritize superintendent candidates who show strong social-emotional intelligence, and who demonstrate the capacity to develop relationships with a broad range of community stakeholders. I conclude the chapter by examining how these results may be shifting in light of an emergent conservative movement to polarize school board politics.

Chapter 3 examines whether the partisan political characteristics of school districts affects the likelihood that school districts hold tax and bond elections, or vote to approve these local educational funding increases, conditional on elections being held. It also uses data from California and Florida over the past decade from 2009-2019. With appropriate statistical controls, I find no evidence that school board or voter partisanship affects the probability of districts holding or passing tax or bond measures. Taken together, the three papers make important contributions to our understanding of how school districts function as organizations, and how the attributes of school district leaders shape students’ educational environments.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
DiPrete, Thomas A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 23, 2023