Why does Howard County have an elected school board?

5 minute read

I’m taking a brief break from my series on Howard County in the 21st century to pick up a topic I commented on some time ago at 53 Beers on Tap, namely why does Howard County have an elected school board? I don’t mean, what’s the history behind why school boards exist in their present form; rather I mean, what purpose does it serve to elect a school board, rather than simply having an appointed board or no board at all (i.e., just an appointed school superintendent)?

I was reminded of this topic when HoCo Rising commented on (but forgot to link to) a Baltimore Sun article on David Thalheimer and his candidacy to the Howard County Board of Education. So I thought it was worth revisiting the subject (and of course recycling my comments saves me from having to write a post from scratch).

53 Beers on Tap’s arguments for an elected school board basically boiled down to the following:

  • Appointed positions equate to political patronage …

  • Elected school board positions allow an opportunity for contrary and/or innovate ideas in education to come to the forefront.

In response to the first point, one could also argue that elected positions equate to political pandering and special-interest tinkering. (For example, witness the various instances of right-wing school board members trying to introduce intelligent design into biology classes, or analogous behavior on the left-wing side.)

In response to the second point, by this logic we should elect every key county position—chiefs of police and fire departments, heads of public works and parks and recreation, and so on—in order to allow an opportunity for contrary and/or innovate ideas … to come to the forefront with respect to policing, fire prevention, recycling, parks, and so on. But that way lies madness. The fact is that we as taxpayers are paying taxes to fund an overall set of county services, and I think it makes sense to have a single point of accountability (in the form of the county executive) for making sure those funds are spent wisely and effectively. Most voters, including me, do not have the time, energy, or background to make an informed decision on each and every elected position, which means that in practice the more secondary elected positions like school board will end up being decided by a minority of voters that is not necessarily representative of voters as a whole.

If we want innovation in education, then I suspect a more realistic approach is to put in place an overall framework by which decentralized innovation can occur at the level of individual schools, e.g., through magnet schools within the traditional public system, charter schools outside the public system, or even at the level of individual students, e.g., homeschooling options, online options (like Florida Virtual School), etc. I think the chances of a good framework for innovation being put into place are better if it’s attempted by a single elected official with an overall mandate (again, the county executive) rather than by a multi-person school board that is vulnerable to being overly-politicized, split between uncooperative factions, and micro-managing the school superintendent.

Now, having said this, it’s worth giving some space to opposing views that I found in a quick Google search. For example, the Virginia ACLU advocates elected school boards based on the general principle that the more democracy, the better and also based on the historical use of appointed school boards in Virginia to institute and reinforce racially discriminatory policies.

The first point I’ve addressed above. The second point echoes controversies elsewhere about whether electing school boards at large (rather than by district) unfairly deprives minorities of representation on the board. The Viriginia ACLU argument presumes that such policies of discrimination are still active, and an elected school board is needed to counter them. Is this really the case in Howard County?

Closer to home, in the Baltimore Sun Gregory Kane has claimed that an elected school board will provide greater accountability. But again, why can’t that accountability reside in a mayor or county executive? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems to agree, particularly with regard to large urban school systems like Baltimore city’s:

I saw firsthand that a mayor’s influence over a troubled big-city district can be a powerful tonic for the local economy and for school reform. ... In troubled big-city districts, capable and committed mayors often are better-situated than a school board operating as a solo entity to challenge the status quo and push for transformational reform. Mayors can facilitate the cradle-to-career health and social service networks that support student learning.

Duncan doesn’t blame elected school boards as the root cause of problems in education, but he also doesn’t uncritically accept arguments in favor of them:

Elected boards are not the cause of the failures of urban school systems. Yet too many big-city districts today suffer from frequent turnover of superintendents, school boards dominated by adult interests, and pass-the-buck blame games for stagnant or failing student performance. To be sure, the vast majority of school systems today still have elected boards—and most work fine. A well-run school board that works cooperatively with a good superintendent can do a great deal to boost student learning. Upwards of 95 percent of the nation’s 14,500 school districts currently are managed by elected school boards—a fact that is not going to change anytime soon. ... Yet if speculation about the obsolescence of elected school boards is exaggerated, it is also the case that boards cannot continue to blindly contend that they are simply misunderstood institutions who are the ultimate arbiters of participatory, grassroots democracy.

Duncan goes on to review the history of why and how school boards came to be elected. Like voter ballot initiatives and forms of direct democracy, elected school boards gained prominence as an element in the Progressive movement’s fight against control of government by corrupt elements, and like ballot initiatives, have since given rise to their own set of problems.

Duncan concludes:

Mayoral control is not the solution to the woes of big-city school districts, any more than elected school boards are the cause of urban ills. But it can be a critical first step to overhauling a failed status quo. Mayoral partnerships with school boards have shown great promise in the last decade. I hope more mayors opt for this approach in struggling big-city districts like Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Turning schools over to the mayor is by no means the sole prescription for reforming large urban districts. But continuing the fickle tinkering of the past is a step backwards. Our children in failing urban schools deserve better.

Howard County obviously is not in the position of a Baltimore city or Washington DC where things have gotten so bad that radical reform of the school system is seen as the only way forward. However even if things seem to be going relatively well with Howard County schools I think it’s still worth looking at these typically unexamined assumptions about how the school system should be governed, especially as we head into an era of fiscal turbulence that will put a strain on the system as it’s evolved thus far.

Your thoughts?