Friday, February 12, 2010

Elected School Boards...So goes the nation; why not Baltimore?

In a press release dated July 8, 2009, the Maryland State Department of Education announced its search for candidates interested in serving on the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. The board is “responsible for raising the level of academic achievement of the students in the Baltimore City Public School System, improving the management and administration of the city’s public school system, and is held accountable for the academic achievement of the public school students in Baltimore City.”

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, the current school board submits its recommendations based on the field of candidates to the mayor and the governor. Joint approval by both public officials is required for an appointment to be made.

The criteria for the selection is that candidates must be at least eighteen years old; demonstrate managerial expertise in the administration of a large business or government entity; have knowledge or expertise in education; have a child in the school system as of the appointment date; and /or have knowledge of the education of children with disabilities. Applicants must submit a letter which addresses their strengths and qualifications for the position, provide proof of city residency, and provide three letters of recommendation. Indeed, a cursory review of the background of city school board members indicates that they fulfill the requirements for office.

On February 12, 2007, Baltimore City representatives Holten, Reisinger, and Welch submitted Council Bill 07-0251R requesting an Investigative Hearing on an Elected School Board. In the subtext for the bill, Holten et al. state that 96% of all school board members in the United States are elected to their positions rather than appointed. The movement failed.

On September 29, 1984, the NAACP announced its support for a charter amendment that called for elected rather than appointed school board members. In an article in the Baltimore AfroAmerican newspaper, the NAACP cited the predominance of elected school boards across the country, the inherent political process associated with an appointed school board, and the fact that school board members seemed “more responsive to an active constituency” when elected rather than appointed. In Baltimore City, the movement failed.

By 2004, ten of twenty-four subdivisions in Maryland have partially elected school boards; not so Baltimore.

In July, 2008 a coalition of parents, teachers, and education supporters lobbied the Annapolis legislature for the transition to at least a partially appointed school board. This emotionally laden issue polarizes educator and politician alike. In defense of an elected school board, BTU president Marietta English, “called the appointed board ‘a monster’ that created a budget deficit several years ago.” In response to the issue, Senate President Thomas (Mike) Miller said, “If I go to hell, it’s going to be because I created an elected school board.”

In an article published by The National School Boards Association, researchers Tim Waters and Robert Mazzano of the MidContinent Research for Education and Learning (MREL) reported on the results of a study on the efficacy of school boards. Waters and Mazzano noted a strong “positive correlation between district leadership and student achievement.” When there was “clear alignment of board, district, and school efforts in support of non-negotiable goals” and the board members “ensure these goals remain the primary focus of the district’s efforts and that no other initiatives detract attention or resources from accomplishing these goals,” a high level of student achievement will occur. Is this scenario possible when school board members owe their appointments to the mayor and governor and do not directly represent the interests of constituents?

The election process guarantees a field of candidates who demonstrate leadership, interest, and initiative in serving the public. More importantly, the public has an independent voice in determining the strategic direction of education (and its children) despite short-term, special interest, stop gap measures driven by the political flavor of the day.

It behooves Baltimoreans to ask yet one more time: What makes us so different from the rest of the country that we still have appointed school boards?


David Donaldson said...

I would strongly advocate against elected school boards in Baltimore. The current system is what will save Baltimore from destroying itself. Because the positions are appointed, we are getting several intelligent educators, business, community advocates on the school board. Now I have not done my research on this point, but I am not sure you must be a resident of Baltimore either. Correct me if I am wrong. However, think about what you would get if the board was elected? I have attended several school board meetings. You would NOT want that crowd making decisions that would effect education in Baltimore. Right now we are saving Baltimore from their own worst enemy. In Detroit, the school board is headed up by the parent of a second grader. So basically, she has a glorified PTA positions that has set back the city for years. Combine this with local pastors and community organizers that get their whole neighborhood to vote for them. Next thing you know we have a completely joke of a school board. Also, what happens if 6 of the 9 seats are residents of Park Heights area? What will happen when votes are made deciding school closures in Cherry Hill? You see, the appointments so far have allowed pretty smart people to make the decisions that have been needed to be made. What Baltimore has been lacking it seems is a leader. Under Dr. Alonso, the board has a leader that can set the vision. Do you think Dr. Alonso would have come to Baltimore knowing he would be the head of a glorified PTA?! No chance. Study Detroit's school board situation right now. Even though the city is under a financial emergency and has been taken over by the state, the school board is still suing and preventing any reform from happening. I just strongly recommend you consider how good we have it in Baltimore before considering the alternative.

Baltimorean said...

Margaret - I'm glad you're paying attention to the current trends in education reform. However, I couldn't disagree more intensely with your conclusions.

The following statement in your post rests on many an unclear assumption: "The election process guarantees a field of candidates who demonstrate leadership, interest, and initiative in serving the public." Under what conditions? Is this really true? Have you seen other elections in Baltimore City? Has such been the result?

Elections politicize issues that do not need further polarization, most specifically the issue of education reforms that are best for children. You see these elected school board bills from the same types of politicians - those who receive the most campaign contributions from teachers unions. In fact, there's a hearing today in Annapolis for a bill that seeks to add an elected position on the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. Who's the bill's sponsor? Well, none other than the former executive for the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Unions play an important role in school reform, but assuming that an elected school board would lead to more fair decisions is erroneous. School Board members are unpaid. They have outside jobs. They glance into the work once every two weeks. To then throw a political election into the process of moving forward a $1 bil. institution is to ask for complete and utter administrative deadlock.

Finally, you make the assumption that School Board members are beholden to their Mayoral & Gubernatorial appointees. What evidence or data do you have to support this claim? I can tell you that I've watched many a policy come through the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners for which either the Mayor and/or Governor have supported, yet the Board has voted against. Appointment does not guarantee forever indebtedness.

Lastly, please review the current state of affairs in Prince George's County. There is an excellent superintendent in place, Bill Hite, who is faced with a newly created elected school board. The system is in a state of disaster - all due to politics, not because of beliefs about what's best for kids.

Again, I commend your interest in school reform, but I urge you to research the actual effects of elected boards prior to suggesting their absolute value.