Maryland Matters recently published intriguing commentary from Kalman Hettleman on the role of Maryland’s school boards and how national politics have shaped their work.
Mr. Hettleman has been a national figure on education policy for many years, but is known to his fellow Marylanders for two specific capacities — his membership on Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (also known as the Kirwan Commission), the panel that ultimately developed the Blueprint for Maryland education initiative, and his tenure as a member of the Baltimore City School Board. He also served as a former deputy mayor of Baltimore, and as former Maryland secretary of Human Resources.
In his article for Maryland Matters, Hettleman talks about the evolving role of school boards in Maryland, where we have a mixed system of elected and appointed board members and the role politics play in the makeup and work of local boards.
Hettleman moves on to explore the progression of the timely consideration of the role of schools boards to question what would happen should we abolish them — especially as they have become political punching bags:
But if school boards disappeared, who then who would hire and fire school superintendents and be held accountable for the performance of schools and students? The answer is uncomplicated: it should be the chief elected executives of cities, counties and townships. There’s no easy cure for what ails public schools and elected officials are political by nature. Still, holding a single elected executive accountable makes plain sense.
Parents will have a clearer path to where the buck stops. Moreover, local chief executives who are directly in charge will be more likely to pay attention to school issues, support funding, and link schools to other vital services like health, mental health, family supports and recreation. It’s ironic and foolish that local chief executives, because of the presence of school boards, are held less accountable for schools than for police, fire, sanitation, health and other vital services.
The same reasoning supports abolishing state school boards and holding governors directly responsible. In Maryland, that seems counter-intuitive since, currently, our state board deserves cheers for hiring a reform-minded state superintendent while the governor has opposed the Blueprint. Yet, the next governor will almost certainly be an improvement, and should be held accountable for implementation of the Blueprint.
He concludes that school boards aren’t likely going anywhere anytime soon, but that there is room for growth and involvement of all factions of education policy:
I confess, despite the fallacy and folly of school boards, it’s political fantasy to think that the state or local boards will be eliminated in the foreseeable future. Still, reformers must be the adults in the room when local boards politicize school policies and undercut superintendents. Reformers also must resist the trend toward elected boards. Most important, Maryland educators must help their own cause by effectively implementing the Blueprint and taking other steps, large and small, to defuse parental unrest.