The question has loomed large in recent years as frustration with a school district that fails far too many kids only keeps growing: Is it time to bring back an elected school board in Boston?
Two Boston city councilors have filed a petition to do so, while a group of education advocates is looking to put the question, in a nonbinding referendum, to Boston voters for the November general election.
It’s an unfortunate distraction. The seemingly endless debate about the district’s governance structure only diverts attention from the far more pressing need to focus on educational inequities in the classroom. Nor is the proposal a good idea: Whatever the current school committee’s flaws, the current structure is better for the city and ultimately no less democratic that an elected school committee would be.
Boston is admittedly an outlier, the only municipality in Massachusetts where the mayor appoints members to the school committee. That’s no accident: The board’s history, when it was a directly elected body, is a narrative of dysfunction, corruption, and racial divisions. The committee’s inaction eventually resulted in court-ordered busing to desegregate the schools in 1974, which threw the whole city into tumult and scarred a generation of students. With memories of that crisis still raw, Mayor Ray Flynn championed a measure 30 years ago to make the oldest school board in the country an appointed body.
The passage of time, and the huge changes in the city since the switch in 1991, suggests to some that the appointed board has outlived its purpose. But the appointed system has value, even in a city decades removed from the busing hostilities.
The chief value of the current system is that it makes one person — the mayor — ultimately accountable for the state of the schools, so that voters know exactly whom to blame when things go wrong. One of the flaws of the old system was that it left lines of accountability muddled and gave officials easy ways to deflect responsibility on education. It was hard to exercise democratic accountability at the ballot box, but now it’s easy: If you don’t like the schools, vote out the mayor.
If he had run for reelection, former mayor Marty Walsh would not have been able to point the finger at anyone else for the district’s struggles on his watch. To the extent that the current school committee has failed, that’s a problem with the mayor who picked the members, not with the governance structure.
The contention that an elected school committee would be more democratic is dubious. Boston suffers from dismally low voter turnout in municipal contests. In off-year City Council elections, turnout is in the low to mid-teens of the electorate — in 2019, it was 16.5 percent. In mayoral elections, turnout hovers around 30 percent. That’s still abysmal, but it gives mayors and their appointees a much stronger case for democratic legitimacy.
And the sliver of the electorate that votes in municipal elections does not typically reflect the demographics of the city. A recent study out of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that voters who elect school boards tend to be much whiter and wealthier than the student population in the public schools. The demographic disparities tend to be “most pronounced in majority nonwhite jurisdictions and school districts with the largest racial achievement gaps,” researchers wrote. Returning to an elected school committee may not rewind the city to 1974, but there’s reason to fear it would be an unrepresentative body.
All of this year’s major mayoral candidates favor, or are at least open to, reducing the mayor’s influence over the school committee — or, to put it another way, none of them, if elected, want to be fully responsible for the schools. Annissa Essaibi George supports keeping a majority of committee members appointed by the mayor, but she would also have a minority selected by the City Council. John Barros and Kim Janey favor “exploring” the possibility of a hybrid body that will have both elected and appointed members, with Janey believing strongly that “there has to be direct accountability to the mayor.” Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell would implement the hybrid model; and under Wu, the board would be majority-elected. All candidates would give the student representative voting power, while Barros would add an extra student seat to the committee.
Currently, the mayor appoints all seven members of the committee based on recommendations issued by a 13-member nominating panel, which interviews applicants and deliberates publicly.Members are paid a $7,500 annual stipend. There is a student who serves on the board but does not have voting power and is not paid.
The worst part about the never-ending squabble over the committee’s makeup is that it serves as a distraction from tackling the actual problems in the schools. Mayoral candidates should be running on their visions for closing racial achievement gaps, raising graduation rates, and reversing enrollment declines. Those are tough issues to solve. But how members of the school committee are selected is a whole lot less important than how willing the city’s leaders are to confront the reasons the district continues to disappoint so many Bostonians.
Correction: A previous version of this editorial mistakenly stated that the 13-member nominating panel for the school committee deliberates privately; it now deliberates publicly.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.