Thursday, January 04, 2007

Should We Elect a School Board?

Since John Leopold's election as County Executive there has been quite a bit of discussion about moving from an appointed school board to an elected school board, a move he supported as a Delegate. The retirement of Phil Jimeno in the Senate opens the door to an elected board, as he was one of the most vociferous opponents of the idea (Mr. Jimeno's replacement, Bryan Simonaire, supports an elected Board). Among the other members of the County delegation, Senators John Astle (D) and Janet Greenip (R) support an elected Board, while Ed DeGrange (D) opposes one, and Jim Rosapepe (D) is open to the possibility. The House delegation is much more uniformly supportive of the change.

So, how should the County proceed? My initial instinct is that greater democratic involvement should always be the goal in these sorts of situations. However, there is also concern that politicization of the School Board, which some may see as an electoral stepping stone to higher office, would serve students poorly. Of course, that isn't to say the current archane process, where the Governor appoints Board members from a pool nominated by community organizations isn't political.

So what does the research say? An analysis of appointed vs. elected school boards in New York State found, "with several exceptions, the school district under the appointed board seemed to be the mirror image of the district under the elected board." A 2003 study of mayoral takeoever of elected school boards in urban areas found that "mayoral takeover (and an appointed school board) was associated with greater levels of per pupil expenditure [pdf]." In an analysis of 100 school districts nationwide, researchers Kenneth Wong and Francis Shen found that over a 5-year period, "districts with appointed boards produced fewer management problems, labor disputes, and financial improprieties; they bring "a broader set of expertise" among managers that allowed them to better access state and federal grants; and they showed more academic progress as measured by test scores."

So, of the research available seems to lean in favor of an appointed, rather than elected school board. However, there is clearly more analysis to be done. My concern, at this point, is that whether elected or appointed, changing the structure of the Board is going to have less impact on the educational outcomes of students than it will on the appearance of taking some sort of important action. If the Anne Arundel County School system has serious problems, I think they can be more readily addressed by improving teacher compensation and keeping up with infrastructure maintenance than changing the structure of the school board. But, of course, those things cost money.

Additional Research:

  • Interest Groups and the Shift from Appointed to Elected School Boards. (1996). [pdf]

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