Well, not quite. But hard-and-fast localists are sure to quease and wheeze at the Wall Street Journal’s cover story on school boards. Across the country, says the Journal, there are mayors baffled by their board’s incompetence, and weighing options of more direct control:
Mayoral control—which usually means dissolving elected school boards and replacing them with commissions appointed by the mayor—was pioneered in Boston in 1992. Since then, several big cities have adopted the practice, notably New York City in 2002, Washington, D.C., in 2007 and Chicago in 1995, where current Education Secretary Arne Duncan ran the school system for seven years as the mayor’s appointee. …
School boards and some teachers’ unions oppose the concept. They argue that dissolution of elected boards takes power away from voters, and point out that while mayoral control alters the structure of school systems, in itself it does nothing to overhaul curriculums or instruction.
The story’s prop case is a current battle in Rochester, NY, where Mayor Bob Duffy has been pushing the option since December. Predictably, teachers have been the stauchest opponents of this plan in the Flower City.
For what it’s worth, the menace of executive control has spurred some groups to formulate some more creative options. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports:
Meanwhile, members of the Community Education Task Force have been working on their own alternative proposal to the mayor’s plan for improving Rochester’s schools. Their plan, which will be unveiled in the next few weeks, will aim to offer more services to students and teachers to help them perform better. The plan will center on partnerships between schools and various community agencies that provide health and social services to children and families, something also included in Duffy’s plan. The task force will suggest teacher training programs and new initiatives to get parents more involved with their children’s education.
All good and happy, though a positive plan formulated primarily in reaction to another positive plan (and apparently based on it) would not seem to have a promising future. That is, it might be doubted whether its supporters are really just opponents of the mayor – should the teachers’ supporters win, they may be lax in really putting much change into action.
Urban schools are one area of politics that liberals and conservatives alike agree on a need for significant change. On the other hand, school boards are one of the most immediate forms of political attachment between a private person and his city.
To be fair, AEI released a report on mayoral control of schools a few years ago that found little benefit, ipso facto, from the control itself. Rather, the means of implementation were deemed to be more important. Furthermore, the report suggeted that a citizens’ board could produce these “best practices” just as well as a mayoral board, if the focus was set. The report concludes in a bit of a flourish:
A century ago, Progressives pushed nonpolitical control and rigid management routines as the proper and “scientific” way to improve education. They sacrificed flexibility to advance efficiency, uniformity, and professionalism. Those twin legacies–the nonpolitical governance of school systems and the rigidity of school operations–have been with us for the past century. It is valuable that we are now recognizing that urban districts are inevitably political entities and that governance must address this reality. Equally crippling, however, has been their legacy of rigidity and uniformity that infuses management, staffing, compensation, and the educational enterprise. Proposals for mayoral control are frequently removed from any deeper call to rethink the structure of urban education, leaving these thornier organizational problems untouched. If simply pursued as an alternative to tackling larger imbedded challenges, mayoral control will serve primarily as a distraction.
So the quandary confronts us at Humane Pursuits. School boards would seem to provide a legitimate good by keeping citizens involved in political life, and especially the social need for good education. Aside from the issue of effectiveness (“local information, local knowledge”), there is the good of participation. But effectiveness cannot simply be glossed over in so practical a matter as public schools.
Comments are invited.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.