A report released last week on reforming the D.C. Board of Education is full of suggestions: Shrink the board, choose members in citywide elections instead of by ward or have the mayor appoint them from a panel of nominees.
But the report also warns that changing the structure of the board in itself will not guarantee improved schools.
Small school boards have succeeded in some cities and failed in others, the nonprofit D.C. Appleseed Center reported. The same is true for elected school boards and for appointed boards.
"There is simply no way to correlate one type of board with high student achievement," said Joshua Wyner, Appleseed executive director. "There is no panacea."
Rather, Wyner said, a successful board sets an agenda and picks an effective superintendent to implement it. The board must focus on setting policy, not solving administrative problems.
The superintendent must also respond to parent complaints quickly--so constituents don't deluge board members with emergency requests--and he or she must keep the board and the public fully informed about school business.
The D.C. school system has never worked that way, the report says. Its 11 members--one from each ward and three chosen at-large--have often split into warring factions. Board members have spent much of their time demanding that the superintendent address problems at individual schools in their wards and very little time debating and setting policy.
"It will not suffice merely to tinker with the current system by, for example, eliminating Board committees or changing Board members' salaries," the report says. "It must change significantly if the school system is to improve what gets delivered to children in the classroom."
The report also notes that D.C. superintendents historically have failed to respond to parent complaints or to keep parents and public officials informed on school issues. That lack of accountability sets the board up for failure, the report says, because the board comes under pressure from constituents to micromanage.
The Appleseed report, written after a year of study by a team of lawyers, educators and management experts, lays the foundation for a citywide debate on the future of the D.C. school board.
The D.C. Council's Education Committee will hold a public hearing Oct. 16 on reforming the board. Committee Chairman Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) has promised to introduce legislation to change the board before Jan. 1.
Timing is critical, because the board is currently working to regain the power to oversee the school system, which was seized by the D.C. financial control board in 1996 in a desperate attempt to improve city schools.
The control board takeover is slated to end June 30. The current board members--all but two of whom were elected since the takeover--are writing a series of self-studies and strategic plans to prove the board is ready to govern.
At the same time, continued infighting on the board--which tried unsuccessfully to oust President Wilma R. Harvey (Ward 1) in July--and questions over its management of public charter schools have convinced Chavous and others that significant changes are needed.
"Change is going to be substantive, it's going to be radical," Chavous said. If city leaders did not lead a charge to revamp the board, he warned, Congress might.
The 30-year-old board has been described as a symbol of the city's fledgling independence, because it was the District's first elected governing panel. Proposals to change the way members are chosen, therefore, are likely to be criticized as antidemocratic.
Appleseed tried to sidestep this delicate issue by offering several choices for how to select the board. The mayor could appoint members from a slate nominated by city residents, subject to confirmation by the D.C. Council.
Wyner said such boards have succeeded in Boston and elsewhere and have far more public accountability that the appointed trustee board that now runs D.C. schools. The trustees are appointed by the control board, rather than elected officials.
Or, members could continue to be elected. But Appleseed endorsed a two-tier, or "hybrid," process, in which the top two vote-getters in each ward primary run head-to-head citywide. Such a system, used in Seattle and San Diego, ensures representation from across the city but means candidates need to build a wide base of support.
Another option offered in the report is a combination board, with some elected and some appointed members. Appleseed also strongly recommended shrinking the size of the board. Since the city has eight political wards, any significant reduction in board size could mean electing members to represent larger areas of the city.
Chavous said the report will serve as his blueprint for next Saturday's hearing and for other discussions of the board's future.
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman so far has declined to comment on the report. School board members have been lukewarm.
At-large member Gail Dixon called the report "a fair job, given what they were doing," but said an appointed board--even if chosen by the mayor or other elected officials--would be undemocratic.
Dixon, who is heading the board's effort to regain power, said fewer members would not guarantee cohesion. "You can have two people and have the worst friction in life," she said. She added that District residents would lose faith in a board that was not a combination of ward and at-large representatives.
"You have too many people who are never going to feel that anyone is there for them," Dixon said. "I don't care how many models are out there, it's not going to work."
Copies of the report can be obtained by calling D.C. Appleseed at 202-393-1158 or visiting its Web site, www.appleseeds.net/dc. There is also a link to the report on www.washingtonpost.com.