Should city school board be elected?

January 08, 2007|By Kalman R. Hettleman

Several activists and legislators will seek passage of a bill in the General Assembly this year, as in several recent sessions, to convert the Baltimore school board from one appointed jointly by the mayor and governor to a partially or totally elected board.

The impulse behind the proposal, especially in the city, is understandable. City schools are perceived as so monumentally ineffective that any way to shake up the system seems worth a try. Why not put the community directly and democratically in control? What's there to lose?

A lot, if the board were elected. Such a reform is hardly revolutionary. More than 90 percent of the 15,000 boards across the country, and 17 of 24 boards in Maryland, are elected.

Yet, there is no evidence that they are more effective than appointed boards. If anything, based on a large body of experience, they are less effective, particularly in big-city districts. In theory, elected boards enfranchise parents, especially minorities; increase accountability; and isolate schools from political influences. However, in practice, parents turn out to vote in low numbers, teachers' unions tend to dominate, and elected members engage frequently in overtly political conduct.

As summarized by University of Memphis researcher Thomas E. Glass in a paper titled "Is It Time for Elected School Boards to Disappear?" elected urban board members by and large "are not accountable to the public, seemingly possess modest skills, are very conflict-prone [and] politicized and demonstrate they often cannot work successfully in tandem with superintendents."

In recent years, elected boards have been replaced by appointed boards under mayoral control in urban districts such as Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia, with generally positive results.

To be sure, appointed school boards are no panacea. The complex, deep-rooted problems of urban schools are not easily solvable no matter who governs them. The best appointed boards, whether more or less elite in composition, have built-in limits.

I am privileged to serve on the city board, which works extremely hard and cohesively and has contributed to the steady progress of our schools. Yet we, like our counterparts nationwide, are almost invariably volunteers with full-time jobs and therefore struggle to command sufficient information and to squeeze in enough time.

Moreover, accountability is still divided between big-city boards and the appointing authority, usually the mayor. So here's an unconventional idea: Abolish big-city school boards entirely. Hold mayors as directly accountable for schools as for police, fire, public works, housing and other major municipal functions.

As discussed in a recent series of articles in the Harvard Educational Review on "Mayoral Takeovers in Education," more city hall control is not a miracle drug either. But some advantages seem apparent.

Mayors, knowing that voters can hold them directly responsible for school progress, will be more prone to provide essential management assistance such as finance and building operations. They will be more likely to address the linkage between school success and parental and community involvement by pouring health, mental health, recreation and other services for children and families into true "community schools." Mayors are also better positioned to mount the bully pulpit and lobby for state and federal aid and corporate and foundation funding.

The only major city where the board has been abolished is New York. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg fought hard to gain sole control and has earned high marks so far for what was viewed as a controversial power-grab. But school boards, elected or appointed, remain entrenched, cherished symbols of "local control" of schools (even though such control is now largely illusory because of state and federal laws and regulations). Because of this, mayoral takeovers are not likely to spread in the near future; recent attempts in Los Angeles and Washington have not succeeded.

In any event, the merits of mayoral accountability should be kept in mind when the General Assembly considers legislation on elected boards. Lawmakers should pay heed to how Murphy's law might apply to urban schools: No matter how bad things may seem, elected school boards would almost surely make them worse.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Baltimore school board. His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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