Voters are likely to punish elected school board members when the academic achievement of white students in their district is not up to expectations, according to a new study by scholars at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Boston College. But they found no similar electoral punishment for school board members in districts where African American and Hispanics students are not achieving success.

“Public education represents the largest investment in equal opportunity and social mobility in the United States,” said Patrick Flavin, associate professor of political science at Baylor University and the lead author of the study. “But we find little evidence that African-American or Hispanic student achievement has much influence on re-election prospects of incumbent school board members.”

The study, “Racial Inequality in Democratic Accountability: Evidence from Retrospective Voting in Local Elections,” was published in the American Journal of Political Science. The authors looked at 1,500 school board member elections in California between 2004 and 2013. The results showed that the re-election of incumbent school board members was correlated with white student achievement in the school district. The effect was less for Hispanic student achievement and nonexistent as related to black student achievement.

“One important and, to date, overlooked component of democratic accountability is the extent to which it might exacerbate existing societal inequalities if the outcomes for some groups of citizens are prioritized over others when voters evaluate governmental performance,” the study stated. “We analyze a decade of California school board elections and find evidence that voters reward or punish incumbent board members based on the achievement of white students in their district, whereas outcomes for African American and Hispanic students receive comparatively little attention.”

“The study ultimately calls into question whether voter control of public school governance is a viable avenue to correct racial inequality in education that can have important and enduring effects on democratic citizenship and political equality,” the study concluded.