Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Michele Moses

Second Advisor

Ken Howe

Third Advisor

Kevin Welner

Fourth Advisor

Ed Wiley

Fifth Advisor

Claudia Mills


This dissertation explores the increasingly common use of citizen-initiated ballot initiatives as an education policy-making tool. The initiative process has grown in frequency and influence in recent years. It has become a means for citizens to mandate education policies, enact legislation, and amend state constitutions without the legislature and largely separate from representative democracy. Within education, these policies sometimes fall outside of research-based understandings of best practice. In this study, I investigate the impact of the ballot initiative phenomenon on American education policy, with particular emphasis on the extent to which ballot initiatives disproportionately affect disadvantaged students. I address the following central question: What is the relationship between education ballot initiatives, education policy, and equal opportunity, particularly for minority students? In addressing this central question, I explore (a) the specific characteristics of ballot initiatives and various state-level factors (e.g., partisanship, educational attainment, and poverty rates) associated with the passage of education ballot initiatives in the United States. I then examine how education policies that result from the ballot initiative process affect underrepresented students in particular and ultimately consider the implications of education ballot initiatives for democracy and equal educational opportunity.

Findings suggest that throughout the history of ballot initiatives in the United States, education initiatives have been used 282 times to address a variety of substantive issues, including those related to (a) school funding, (b) governance, (c) higher education, (d) K-12 policy, and (e) civil rights and equal opportunity. Furthermore, in the course of education initiative history, 34 initiatives have specifically sought to limit the rights or educational opportunity of minority groups. These initiatives have disproportionately taken place in the last 25 years, and they have been overwhelmingly successful when compared to general education initiatives and the population of non-education initiatives. Results from logistic and linear regression models further suggest that minority-targeted education initiatives pass at significantly higher rates than non-minority targeted education initiatives, and that they garner considerably more yes votes regardless of passage. In fact, holding all other variables constant, minority-targeted initiatives are nearly three times as likely to pass as other similar education initiatives (e.g., when compared to other initiatives opposed by the teachers’ association). For states with more people of color, this effect is even greater, suggesting that the potential for “tyranny of the majority” may increase when the supposed “threat-level” within the state (e.g., the perceived threat related to the presence of increasing numbers of minority residents) increases.

This research is intended to contribute to a small body of literature regarding the impact of direct democracy on education policy. The data collected for this study represent the first comprehensive collection of education ballot initiatives throughout U.S. history. Moreover, this study is particularly important in that it considers the impact of education ballot initiatives on minority groups in particular, something that has not been done comprehensively to date. If education is to serve democratic purposes, policy decisions must be made with special attention to equality and justice, and must consider the needs of all students. Studies like this are essential, then, to better understand the benefits and potentially negative consequences of the ballot initiative process as an education policy-making tool, particularly for our most disadvantaged students.