OPINION: The Case for an Elected School Board
The Baltimore County School Board Task Force began meeting to discuss possible school board changes.
The task force charged with reviewing how members of the Baltimore County Board of Education are chosen began meeting with the public last week. To date, the vast majority of speakers at these sessions have endorsed having at least a partially elected—if not fully elected—school board. All members are currently appointed.
As this issue heats up, I think it is important to look at how other schools across the country are handling this important issue.
According to the National School Boards Association, there are more than 90,000 local school board members across the United States, nearly all of whom are elected (the most recently conducted survey puts this number at 94.5 percent). These local officials govern 13,809 individual local school districts that serve about 50 million public school students nationwide. Appointed school boards are very much in the minority.
The question certainly should be posed whether elected boards prove to be more effective than their appointed counterparts. In a 2004 study published by the American Economic Review, researchers Eric Maskin and Jean Tirole reviewed the relative performance of elected versus appointed officials in the public sector. They came to the conclusion that the "most important decisions should be taken by elected rather than nonaccountable officials.”
Given the general lack of accountability of our present school board on many topics of concern, most notably the school facilities use policy, I agree with the study. The more appointed officials feel that they are insulated from the public, the more likely they are to not feel bound by any sense of accountability.
Another scholarly work, "School Board Composition and Student Achievement" by Eric Isenberg and others, examined whether elected or appointed boards distributed resources more equitably. Based on their research, they concluded that elected school boards appear to do a better job.
This also reflects the recent actions of our school board, which gave Superintendent Joe Hairston a rubber stamp for the reduction and transfer of about 200 teachers, while adding another highly paid central office bureaucrat. Without a strong and accountable school board to serve as a counterweight to a long-serving superintendent, it seems unlikely that Hairston's policy proposals will be sufficiently vetted.
Perhaps the most important difference, I believe, between appointed and elected school boards is their level of public engagement. Sadly, our current board has a very restrictive policy on public engagement. They allow no more than 10 public speakers at any meeting. Moreover, unless you happen to know one of the board members personally, several citizens have expressed their frustration that it is virtually impossible to contact individual members directly.
It seems to me that students deserve a more efficient, more accountable and more connected school board. One need only to look to our neighbor to the north, Harford County, for a successful model. Two years ago, Harford County legislators approved a hybrid school board model, in which half its members are appointed and the other half elected.
I believe this model would allow for a good balance of experience, concern, diversity and accountability among members of a newly constituted Baltimore County School Board. I encourage members of the general public to make their voices heard with regard to this important issue for our community and our children.