Education Beat: Appointed? Elected? Or maybe a bit of both?

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By Mike Bowler

Baltimore County may finally be getting a partially elected school board.

Or not.

Probably not.

Legislation that would give the county a “hybrid” board of eight appointed members (including a student) and seven members elected by legislative district has the support of a bare majority of the county’s legislative delegation.

But the opposition of County Executive James T. Smith Jr., the sitting school board and other establishment figures may doom the proposal – again – before week’s end. (Legislation that would have added elected commissioners to the Baltimore City appointed school board was rejected last Friday by the city’s House delegation.)

Rejection of the Baltimore County plan would leave Maryland with 18 elected boards, four appointed and two hybrid or “blended” boards in Harford and Caroline counties. The 18 elected, 6 appointed/hybrid breakdown is the inverse of a quarter-century ago, when two-thirds of the state’s boards were appointed.

“The hybrid model makes intuitive sense,” says Sen. Robert A. (Bobby) Zirkin, 11th District Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors. “It captures the best of both systems and counteracts the worst of both.”

The “best” of the elected system, of course, is that it puts board members in closer touch with the people they represent. The worst is that partisan politics could be injected into education (although candidates would run on a nonpartisan basis)

That was exactly the thinking in 1898, when a nine-member Board of School Commissioners appointed by the Baltimore City mayor replaced a 20-member body appointed by the City Council by political ward. The idea was to “get ward politics out of education.”

The appointive system also has obvious best’s and worst’s. At best, the appointed member can act independently, free of partisan politics. But at worst, the member can be a tool of the appointive authority – in Baltimore County’s case, the governor. (Commissioners in the city are appointed jointly by the mayor and governor under the state-city “partnership.”)

Zirkin and other sponsors of the county legislation insist they are acting “out of principle,” as Zirkin puts it, not out of dissatisfaction with any recent school board decision or appointment to the board. “This is purely to make the board more active, more representative,” he says.

The hybrid board is a relatively new phenomenon in American education, begun in Oakland, Calif., several years ago, when Mayor (now candidate for governor) Jerry Brown managed to pack the elected board with three of his appointees.

“It didn’t work,” says Gary Yee, now the board’s president. “It was supposed to be good for the school board, but it ended up being mostly good for the mayor.”

There is no research evidence that one system is better than another when it comes to student achievement. A 2007 study at the University of Alabama found no difference, although the study found a slight positive difference in student outcomes when the superintendent is elected. (Most school boards in the U.S. are elected and most school chiefs are appointed. Almost all elected superintendents are in the South.)

Nor does either system have a monopoly on wisdom. The elected state board in Texas last week gave preliminary approval to a new statewide social studies curriculum that downplays the role of Thomas Jefferson among the founding fathers, questions the separation of church and state, and says that the U.S. government was infiltrated by communists during the Civil War.

The appointed board in Baltimore City once voted to turn the operation of city schools over to a troika of administrators, an idea so cockeyed that it lasted less than 24 hours. In 2002, a rogue elected board in Prince George’s County fired the superintendent, only to be reversed by the state Board of Education.

There is a difference in the atmosphere of meetings conducted by appointed and elected boards. Attend meetings in Howard County (elected) and Baltimore City (appointed), and you’ll hear the Howard board members more concentrated on constituents’ needs – building projects and other local matters. These folks must “play to the audience.” Their re-election depends on it.

The last word goes to the late Walter S. Orlinsky, former delegate and Baltimore City Council president. Orlinsky, a visionary despite ethical lapses that landed him in prison, proposed as long ago as 1972 that, given the need for professional expertise to run ever-more-complex school systems, there was no need for any school board. Some are still posing that argument.

“Do you want to pay a superintendent $50,000 a year and have him second-guessed by a group of part-time commissioners?” Orlinsky asked.

Mike Bowler retired from the Baltimore Sun in 2004 after 34 years at the newspaper as a reporter and editor, much of it covering education. He wrote more than 900 of his “Education Beat” columns for The Sun.
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