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February 2000




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To find out what reform models are currently being tested in DCPS, see http://www.k12.dc.us/dcps/reform/reform_frame.htm. It appears that they are experimenting with 13 models in some 70 DC schools. Perhaps somebody can offer an informed perspective on this. Who put these models in place, how long ago, preliminary results. How would returning power to the elected board affect current reforms? (Is the fear of giving authority back to the elected Board related to the fear of the Board not keeping current reforms underway?)

Steve Diner's 1982 study entitled “The Governance of Education in the District of Columbia: A Historical Analysis of Current Issues” shows that changing the structure of the system in DC has been a 200-year past-time, with few improvements. A key source of the problem has been divided authority. The Board (elected or appointed) has been kept separate from the Executive/central control (elected or appointed) to reduce political appointments, but the Executive/central control has been in charge of the budget. Authority for appointing the Board was moved from the Commissioners to the Judges to reduce politicization, but eventually the Judges begged Congress to remove that responsibility. Methods to reduce conflict (structural design, defined roles and responsibilities) are key. Yet, no group will always agree to where policy ends and administration begins. A system with a strong Superintendent who is in place for awhile is very important, perhaps key. Diner says “structures are easiest thing to change... and the most remote from the children.”

I asked Katrina A. Kelley, Director of the Council of Urban Boards of Education at the National School Boards Association (in Alexandria, VA) about the advantages and disadvantages of appointed vs. elected boards. She said, “we can certainly note that among our members, over the last several years, there has been a slight increase in the number of appointed boards (which may imply a trend or maybe just a fad), but we have no research speaking to your interests.” She also said that “Ultimately it really is about the caliber of the board member — bottom line. The question is how do we change the candidate running for school boards, or even an applicant in the selection process for an appointed board, so that the right ‘mix‘ of members is present in terms of experience in key areas of governance important to the board and community, community representation, etc. Another question is how do we change the public attitude so they understand that it is about the caliber of the person being elected and so they better understand the role of the school board and ultimately so they elect the right ‘mix’ of members.ö NSBA has many resources available to assist board members: see http://www.nsba.org/bookreports/bookreports.htm.

Chicago schools crumbled under an appointed system, not an elected one. The reform in Chicago was, according to Wayne Sampson, Executive Director of the Illinois Assoc. of School Boards, “to marry the authority with the responsibility in Chicago. Under the earlier plan, the Mayor appointed the board from recommendations received from various geographic areas in the city. Under the new law, he appoints a five member board directly, without input from the geographic areas. The relationship between the board and the Mayor was made very clear. The board serves at his discretion. While this was the case earlier, the Mayor distanced himself from the board because he could not exercise the amount of control he believed needed for him to assume the political risk that came with the city schools. Now he is directly involved and has taken the risk because he more directly controls the appointments. He appointed two people out of city government to key spots on the board that he knew and trusted. Whether there has been significant improvement in student achievement in Chicago because of the change is still unknown.” The IASB has some nice resources: http://www.iasb.com/files/issue1.htm.

The founding legislation which changed the Boston school board from elected to appointed in 1991 is at: http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/schcom/ch108.asp. I would like to know more from parents in that school system, now that they’ve had more time to test drive their experiment.

Reform isn't limited to US — take a look at what's going on in Canada: “The role of locally-elected school trustees is in question across the country. The need for short, concise arguments in favour of locally elected trustees was identified by the CSBA Board of Directors.” See for the list: http://www.cdnsba.org/govern/trustees.htm. While you're there, have a look at “The Future of School Boards: The Canadian Experience,” http://www.cdnsba.org/govern/NSBA_Quebec_Workshop1998.asp.

The Boston Review has an interesting article entitled “Educating a Democracy: Standards and the Future of Public Education,” and responses, at http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR24.6/meier.html. This places the reform movement into a larger discussion about the role of education and the big experiment underway in US public education.

DC specific report: The Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) and The McKenzie Group, Inc. did a report for the Superintendent and Control Board and published it at http://www.cgcs.org/ under Reports and Data: “Rebuilding D.C. Schools, the final report of the D.C. Public Schools External Transition Project” (Dec. 98). See Findings and Issues -- Governance. Indicates transition back to elected board could undo reforms initiated by Ackerman, suggests Newark for a phase-in model. Says barrier to effective operations is DC's 2-in-1 board which acts as a state educational agency and local school system, and Superintendent's 2-in-1 role as chief state school officer and school superintendent -- suggests Hawaii as a model for an organizational structure. Says “The problems faced by the DCPS in designing effective educational services are compounded by the fact that some operations of the school system are handled through the Mayor's office, while others are handled through the DCPS. The placement of finance, procurement and payroll, for instance, under the Mayor's office is unusual even among urban school systems -- among them, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City -- that are financially or politically dependent on city hall. No other major city fragments its school operations in the same way the District of Columbia does...” Note: This is same key point Steve Diner made in his review of DC's school governance history.

The Education Commission of the States (ECS) http://www.ecs.org has a report titled “Comprehensive School Reform: Five Lessons From the Field” (December 99) and one titled “Governing America's Schools: Changing the Rules” (Nov. 99).

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