Some Boston city councilors want to alter the structure of the seven-member, mayorally appointed Boston School Committee. It’s the wrong place to make an independent stand. The appointed board has done no harm, unlike the elected school board that preceded it. Overall, the appointed board has adopted wise policies leading to consistent improvement in the city’s classrooms over the last two decades.
In 1992, a home-rule petition disbanded the city’s 13-member elected school committee and replaced it with a board appointed solely by the mayor. In 1996, Boston residents voted overwhelmingly to retain the model. Some voters, especially in the city’s minority neighborhoods, felt disenfranchised by the move. But there is much evidence — as recently as the creation of the city’s new student assignment policy — to suggest that urban schools function best for all students when the mayor is directly accountable for school operations.
This time around, the appointed board is under attack from two councilors who represent a large swath of working-class voters in predominantly white neighborhoods. In January, City Councilor Frank Baker of Dorchester introduced a plan to replace the appointed board with a hybrid committee — four appointed members and three elected at-large. More recently, South Boston City Councilor Bill Linehan offered a measure to require council approval of the mayor’s appointees.
Mixing politics and school policies has been a recipe for disaster in Boston. The history of the elected school board is littered with incidents of extortion, patronage, infighting, and segregationist policies that led to court-ordered busing. The hallmarks of the appointed board include upgrades in standards, partnerships with business leaders, and technological improvements.
One legitimate criticism of the appointed board has been its reluctance to mount forceful challenges to the mayor or school superintendent. But members have shown more of an independent streak of late. If the board should ever slip into the role of mindless rubber stamp, then there would be a reason to consider elections. But the board is working well right now.
Much work remains to elevate the quality of Boston’s schools. But none of it will get done by slipping backwards into the days of patronage and political posturing.