Boston Mayor Michelle Wu faces political pressure to change the way public schools in Boston are governed. In a nonbinding referendum last year, voters in the city overwhelmingly backed the idea of making Boston like most other American municipalities, in which mayors play little direct role in public education and elected school boards instead make major decisions over hiring superintendents, opening or closing schools, and even setting graduation standards.
So far, Wu has shown little appetite for an elected school committee. But backers of the idea still want the change made before the 2023 election.
There are certainly problems with the city’s current school governance system, in which the mayor appoints all members of the seven-person school committee. But if the city is to overhaul school governance, the way forward shouldn’t be to switch to a popularly elected school committee — an antiquated way of managing schools in the 21st century. Instead, Boston should get rid of the body and centralize control of the schools in the mayor’s office.
After all, voters don’t elect a committee to run the city’s parks, police or fire departments, or sanitation. We elect a mayor and then hold her accountable if she mismanages those very large responsibilities.
The case for treating public education differently is not convincing. The major problem with the current appointed school committee isn’t that it’s appointed; it’s that by setting up an extra layer of bureaucracy, it provides a smoke screen for mayors and insulates them from accountability for the state of the public schools.
Ending a school committee may seem radical, since local school board elections are so ingrained in American tradition. But the local school board, and its considerable power over the education of children in a geographic area, is a particularly North American phenomenon, and something of an accident of history. The colony of Massachusetts required towns to establish and pay for schools in 1647, in a law known as the Old Deluder Satan Act, and local control of schools — and local responsibility for funding them — has endured since.
In many other advanced nations, the notion of a local elected body making decisions about hiring, school openings and closings, and curriculum would appear odd, even an abdication of responsibility from higher levels of government. In France, for instance, the national Ministry of Education runs public schools. According to the OECD, in most member countries establishing teacher salaries is the responsibility of national governments. To hear backers of the elected school committee tell it, anything less than local control is antidemocratic — which would surely come as a surprise to millions of Europeans and Asians who’ve been under the impression they live in democracies.
Now, the United States obviously isn’t going to move to nationally centralized school control — the federal government didn’t even have an Education Department until 1979. One city, on its own, can’t escape local responsibility for education.
The question for Wu should be how a large, diverse city can best manage its schools to deliver a quality public education in a country where that role is left to municipalities. An elected school board is not a magic formula for better outcomes. As recent controversies over critical race theory and COVID-19 policies on school boards across America have reminded us, entrusting local politicians with those calls comes with a distinct downside. And having the public at large vote for the overseers of the schools risks creating new fractures in the city. One 2021 academic paper found that “voters who turn out in these [school board] elections typically do not have kids of their own and are generally much whiter as a group than the students that local schools educate.”
During her mayoral campaign, Wu resisted calls for an all-elected school committee, saying she wanted to be personally accountable for the schools. She was right. The way to answer popular calls for more democratic accountability in the schools is to drop the pretense of the appointed committee and put Wu, and her successors, on the hook for the system and its $1.3 billion budget. The elected City Council, which has an education committee, could then take on a greater oversight role of the mayor’s handling of the schools.
Ultimately, the discussion over school governance in Boston has been something of a distraction from the far more urgent challenges in the schools, where enrollment continues to plummet, falling to just over 48,000 students this fall. But if the city is going to change how schools are managed, it shouldn’t be guided just by tradition or what other towns in Massachusetts do. The best governance model for public education is whatever delivers the best results for the city’s children.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.