Graduate Research Plan Statement
Racism and bullying are inherently unjust and infringe upon children’s human rights to equal dignity, respect, and worth (United Nations, 1948). According to the 2019 National Crime Victimization Survey, 3.6% of Hispanic student survey respondents ages 12-18 reported being called a derogatory term related to race at school. This statistic rises to 5.3% for Black students, 6.4% for Asian students, and 9% for students of two or more races. Existing research in public health and psychology suggest that this prevalent race-based bullying may have substantial costs for students’ mental health and academic outcomes (e.g. Brimblecombe et al., 2018; English et al., 2016).
How is interpersonal racism experienced by students shaped by broader political contexts? To investigate this relationship, I will exploit changes to school district election systems brought on by the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, along with 20 years of student-level health survey data. In particular, I will measure the causal effect of switching from at-large school-board elections (where all voters vote on all school board member positions) to district-based school-board elections (where the jurisdiction is divided into geographic subsections that each elect their own school board member) on the prevalence of race-based bullying reported by Black, Latina/o, and other students of color in California.
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 made it easier for minority groups to sue local governments over election systems that illegally dilute minority votes, such as at-large elections that enable the majority group to dominate elections over minority groups’ votes. As a result, over 200 (~23%) of California school districts switched from at-large to district-based elections due to litigation or threats of litigation under the act from 2001 to 2017 (Silva, 2019). To estimate the causal effect of switching election systems on the prevalence of race-based bullying and harassment, I will implement a dynamic difference-in-differences research design to compare changes in the prevalence of race-based bullying reported by students in school districts that switched from at-large to district-based election systems to changes among students in school districts that did not switch. Regression models will include school district and year fixed effects to account for time-invariant school district composition and quality, as well as statewide changes from year to year. Since the changes to the school district election systems occurred in different years and treatment effects may vary across time, a traditional difference-in-differences model can lead to biased estimates (Goodman-Bacon, 2021). To model and address this potential bias, I will implement the decompositions suggested by Goodman-Bacon (2021) and apply the alternative estimation method proposed by Sun and Abraham (2021).
I will use the California Elections Data Archive to determine the year that a school district switched from at-large to district-based elections and to identify school districts that never changed election systems. For my outcome variable, I will measure the prevalence of student-reported race-based bullying and harassment using proprietary data from the CA Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), which contains over 8 million student responses spanning 1997-2020. In order to receive state grant money from the Tobacco-Use Prevention Education program, California schools are required to administer the anonymous CA Healthy Kids Survey to 7th and 9th grade students every two years. One of the questions in the survey asks students how many times in the past 12 months they were harassed or bullied due to their race, ethnicity, or national origin. In addition, demographic questions in the survey will enable me to disaggregate effects by race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender as well. I have access to these data through a data use agreement with WestEd and the California Department of Education.
In addition to simply testing the impacts of school-board election systems on bullying, I will also explore the mechanisms of these impacts. One potential way that changing election systems may affect the prevalence of race-based bullying is by increasing the attention given to topics such as racism and bullying in board meetings. To investigate this mechanism, I will webscrape school board meeting minutes and measure the prevalence of terms such as “racism”, “bullying”, and “discrimination” across time. Then, I will apply the dynamic difference-in-differences model to estimate how switching to district-based elections affected the prevalence of these terms in board meeting discussions. In a related application, I will use a hierarchical clustering algorithm to identify groups of similar keywords in the meeting minutes. Then, I will implement a lasso-regularized logistic regression to predict whether the meeting minutes are from when the school district was at-large or district-based using the counts of each cluster of keywords as predictors. This strategy will allow me to identify groups of keywords that best predict whether a school district was at-large or district-based. By comparing these groups of keywords, I can identify differences in the language used and topics discussed by school board members that are associated with switching to a district-based election system.
Intellectual Merit: In existing literature, Beaman et al. (2009) found that Indian villagers who were exposed to a female chief village councilor have weaker gender stereotypes and more positive perceptions of female public leadership. In addition, Kogan, Lavertu, and Peskowitz (2021) find that increased minority representation in school boards leads to gains in minority students’ academic performance. However, no prior literature studies the effects of racially-diverse leadership on the prevalence of discrimination that minority groups actually experience. My proposed research would be the first to provide causal evidence of this relationship by exploiting changes in school election systems.
In addition, though recent research on the California Voting Rights Act has found statistically significant impacts of changing from at-large to district-based election systems on Latino political representation in city governments and school boards (e.g. Collingwood & Long, 2021; Silva, 2019), there is little to no research on the spillover effects of switching election systems on outcomes outside of politics. According to Omi and Winant’s (2014) theory of racial formation, racial order is influenced by reciprocity between macro-level (such as election systems) and micro-level social relations (such as racist bullying). My proposed study will be one of the first to implement a causal-inference framework to empirically test this relationship.
Broader Impacts: Fostering inclusive learning environments where students do not face discrimination or harassment is essential to ensuring that all students have access to equal educational opportunity. By examining the linkages between election systems and the prevalence of racist bullying, my research project will help school leaders and policymakers design policies that more effectively address bullying and interpersonal racism in schools. My research project will provide empirical evidence to help inform the design of electoral systems that foster racial equity and minority rights.
Beaman, L., Chattopadhyay, R., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2009). Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(4), 1497-1540.
Brimblecombe, N., Evans-Lacko, S., Knapp, M., King, D., Takizawa, R., Maughan, B., & Arseneault, L. (2018). Long Term Economic Impact Associated with Childhood Bullying Victimisation. Social Science & Medicine, 208, 134-141.
Collingwood, L., & Long, S. (2021). Can states promote minority representation? Assessing the effects of the California Voting Rights Act. Urban Affairs Review, 57(3), 731-762.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Students’ Reports of Hate-Related Words and Hate-Related Graffiti. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.
English, D., Lambert, S. F., & Ialongo, N. S. (2016). Adding to the Education Debt: Depressive Symptoms Mediate the Association between Racial discrimination and Academic Performance in African Americans. Journal of School Psychology, 57, 29-40.
Goodman-Bacon, A. (2021). Difference-in-Differences with Variation in Treatment Timing. Journal of Econometrics, 225(2), 254-277.
Kogan, V., Lavertu, S., & Peskowitz, Z. (2021). How Does Minority Political Representation Affect School District Administration and Student Outcomes?. American Journal of Political Science, 65(3), 699-716.
Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2014). Racial formation in the United States. Routledge.
Silva, E. S. (2019). Representation Matters: Descriptive Representation, School Board Election Systems, and the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (Doctoral dissertation, USC).
Sun, L., & Abraham, S. (2021). Estimating dynamic treatment effects in event studies with heterogeneous treatment effects. Journal of Econometrics, 225(2), 175-199.
United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.