The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how local governments respond to a public health crisis amid high levels of partisan polarization and an increasing tendency for local issues to become nationalized. As an arena that has, in recent years, been relatively separate from national partisan divides, public schools provide a useful window into these dynamics. Leveraging the fact that all of the nation’s school districts had to adopt a reopening plan for the fall, we test what factors best predict whether a district chose to return students to the classroom or educate them remotely. Contrary to the conventional understanding of school districts as localized and non-partisan actors, we find evidence that politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making. Mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening. Additionally, we find evidence that districts are sensitive to the threat of private school exit. Districts located in counties with a larger number of Catholic schools were less likely to shut down and more likely to return to in-person learning. These findings have important implications for our understanding of education policy and the functioning of American local governments.
Political parties in the U.S. are composed of networks of interest groups, according to the extended party network theory. Scholars have focused on national extended party networks. We use the case of education interest groups to explore how policy environments shape party networks on the state level. Using 145,000 campaign contributions from 2000 to 2017, we show that the alignment of education interest groups has changed over time. In 2000, teachers unions were the dominant group and aligned with Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans lacked support from any education group. This pattern was relatively consistent across states. Over time, coalitions diverged, with some state networks polarizing, meaning unions increasingly aligned with Democrats and reform groups with Republicans, while others did not experience such polarization. We find that labor law restrictions and private school choice programs were related to these trends, suggesting that state-level policies shape the contours of state party networks.