Elected boards aren't better

EDUCATION BEAT

Policy: Appointed school officials tend to have fewer problems working with one another.

December 14, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE OTHER night, members of the activist group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) occupied the chairs of the city's nine appointed school board members and (until police removed them) declared themselves "the new board of the Baltimore City school system."

ACORN's anger is understandable. The Board of School Commissioners shares the responsibility for the system's financial crisis and the resulting dismissal of more than 700 employees. And this board is far from a perfect cross section of Baltimore City. But ACORN should watch out what it wishes for, which is an elected school board better attuned to the city's neighborhoods and parents.

It's a nice idea, this democracy in the setting of school policy. But would a body of ACORN activists have done any better? Not likely. There's no evidence that schools run by elected boards perform better than those run by appointed boards. If that were the case, we should elect superintendents and CEOs. Some districts do.

Exhibit A is Prince George's County, where the elected school board was so dysfunctional that the General Assembly replaced it last year with an appointed body. Even a board appointed in heaven can be inefficient and mired in constant conflict. But nasty arguing and posturing occur more often when "the people" choose their school representatives.

Baltimore's board dates to 1898, when a nine-member body appointed by the mayor replaced a 20-member panel appointed by the City Council. The idea was to "get ward politics out of education." Members were to have the interests of all of the city's schoolchildren at heart and in mind, not the parochial and political interests of their City Council sponsors.

That structure served Baltimore well for 99 years, enduring numerous attempts at change. A 1925 mayoral commission proposed abolishing the Board of School Commissioners and turning the schools over to a commissioner of education, a step that's been taken in recent years in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit.

Until the 1970s, the board had a much more elite look than it does now. The board that desegregated Polytechnic Institute's A course 51 years ago, two years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, was made up of wealthy lawyers, businessmen and representatives of the city's leading white universities, Maryland and Johns Hopkins.

City schools entered a partnership with the state six years ago, and the board is appointed jointly by the mayor and governor. One of the nine members must be a parent of a city public school student, another familiar with disabled children. Three must have a "high level of knowledge and expertise concerning education." And at least four must know about "the successful administration of a large business." (There's also a student, who can't vote on major matters such as budgets, personnel issues and collective bargaining.)

You can see where the drafters of the partnership legislation, heavily influenced by the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, were going. City schools are a billion-dollar enterprise with thousands of moving parts. As Jane Elizabeth, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, notes in a major study of the nation's 15,000 local boards, they no longer have as their primary duty the finding of teachers. "Today's board members are asked to serve on committees that include budget and finance, buildings and construction, policy, technology and personnel," Elizabeth says. "At the same time, voters are increasingly apathetic and qualified board candidates are harder than ever to find."

Veteran city political activist A. Robert Kaufman notes that few of those groups directly involved in education have a voice on the board. He would have each group elect representatives, subject to recall at any time. Teacher unions might have two or three seats, high school students a like number, parent organizations three or four. But this would be an unwieldy arrangement, and it would deprive the board of what it needs most: expertise in setting policy and monitoring finances.

@SUBHEDHoward County, Baltimore show education disparity

Howard County had the nation's highest percentage of adults with a high school diploma last year, while a few miles away Baltimore City had one of the lowest, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The bureau said 95.1 percent of Howard residents older than 25 had a diploma. The city had a 69.4 percent high school completion rate, 226th of the 231 communities surveyed.

Wealth and education were linked in the study. The three states with the highest rates of school completion - Alaska, Minnesota and New Hampshire - were among the states with the highest median income.

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