Aaron Regunberg: Providence Needs an Elected School Board

Friday, May 18, 2012


Earlier this week the Providence Journal reported that only three of nine Providence School Board members showed up at the last board meeting, meaning there was no quorum and the board could not vote on any business matters. This was just a week after the board’s vote on a new superintendent, a meeting at which only five of nine members were present.

I think this is a problem. To be clear, I am not trying to call out individual members for missing a School Board meeting—there are numerous legitimate reasons one might have to skip out once in a while, particularly if the business for that meeting did not seem very worthwhile.

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But that, in my opinion, is exactly the point we should be raising: why do we have a school board that is so inconsequential as to not seem worthwhile even to its own members?

Of course, that’s an overstatement; I think all of the board’s members are good and caring people, and I don’t believe any of them actually don’t care about fulfilling the offices of the School Board. What I do think, however, is that these absences serve as a telling symptom of a greater structural problem, which is an appointed board with little actual significance, no real independenceand no constituency to which and by which they can be held accountable.

The debate between elected and appointed school boards has been many years in the making. The idea of replacing elected boards with appointed ones—often referred to as mayoral control—started to gain attention as a trendy new reform strategy in the 1990s. The idea was that centralizing power in one official’s hands would increase accountability and efficiency and ultimately lead to improved academic achievement for students.

That’s a great claim. The problem is, after several decades of mayoral control in districts across the country, there is no convincing evidence to back this claim up, either here in Providence (which has had mayoral control since 1980) or in the growing body of academic research on this issue. Take, for example, a recent study by researchers at the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers University looking at the effects of mayoral control in nine major cities—Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—which found that there is “no conclusive evidence that governance changes increase achievement.”

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago published another study in 2011 looking specifically at Chicago’s appointed school board which not only found that “there is compelling evidence that, for over 15 years, the Board’s policies have failed to improve the education of the vast majority of Chicago public school students,” but also that “Chicago’s appointed Board of Education is not responsive to the community it serves and not directly accountable to the public. The Board’s policies, processes, and structures virtually exclude genuine public participation and input in decisions. As a result, the knowledge and experience of educators and parents are largely excluded.”

This last part is really important. Right now, when parents or students have a concern—say, they don’t want their school to be closed—and want to make it heard, the only place they can really go is the School Board. But an appointed board, which has no institutional reason to take community input into account and no power to act on that input regardless, effectively closes off this arena for democratic discourse and public engagement in our schools. The reason we have an elected City Council is because it’s important to have someone representing your local community in city government, someone who is accessible, who can work on issues significant to each neighborhood, and who can be held democratically accountable by his or her constituents if he or she is not doing a good job of the above. All of these reasons for an elected council are just as important to the governance of our schools, so why allow for democracy in one and not the other?

Of course, there are drawbacks to elected school boards. One is the entrance of money; obviously whenever an official needs to fundraise to run for office,the door is left open for corruption and the disproportionate influence of moneyed interests. But in small districts like ours, money can get you only so far—candidates need to raise some funds, but there’s a sharp decrease in returns past a certain level, ensuring that spending is not an effective replacement for old-fashioned constituent contact.

One argument against elected school boards that I absolutely do not accept is that they subject public education to “politics.” Let’s be very clear—public education is political. The questions of what we should teach our children, how we should teach our children, and how we should allocate the resources to do the above are some of the most politically fraught issues imaginable. Appointing instead of electing a school board does not take the politics out of school governance; all it does it restrict the ability of parents, students, teachers and other community members to have a meaningful place in these inherently political decision-making processes.

Democracy can be messy, there’s no question about it. But there’s a reason we value public elections in this country. There’s a reason our constitution begins with the line “We the People,” and there’s a reason sovereignty resides in the public. I don’t see the sense in shunting aside those reasons for an issue as vitally important as education—particularly considering we’ve been doing just that in Providence since 1980 and have precious little to show for it. We should not be afraid of democracy; it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got, and I think it’s time we gave it a shot.


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