The antics of the D.C. Board of Education this summer led to a crescendo of voices calling for an end to this elected body. Yet despite the dismal state of affairs at the board, the District should not surrender one of the few directly elected bodies it possesses.
D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, chairman of the council's committee on education, wants to conduct public hearings on the future governance of the city's public schools. Fair enough. Chavous not only is on record as favoring an elected board, but he has been one of the few lucid voices in this mess. We can expect his hearings to be conducted in a manner that will concentrate on the structure of the board and on what is best for the system -- and the children -- with a minimum of rhetoric.
But meanwhile, in a rush to eliminate the board, it has been suggested that an appointed board of professional educators and administrators could bring more expertise to the task of governing the schools than a group of ordinary citizens. Such a board would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
This idea, however, fails on two fronts. First, citizens can bring community input, institutional memory and common sense to the board, qualities that are more important than technical expertise, which should rest with the superintendent of schools. Second, the board's actions are too important to be left to people who are not directly answerable to voters.
Appointed boards also are no panacea. Consider Baltimore and Cleveland. These cities -- similar to the District in size and demographics -- went to appointed boards for many of the same reasons that such a change is being considered here, and they failed to improve their systems.
The D.C. school board, despite its detractors, has been the launching pad for council members who have been reelected many times by the voters. Linda Cropp, Carol Schwartz and Hilda Mason are positive examples of this trend. When this happens, we presumably have a council that is well informed on educational matters.
Parents United, PTAs and other interested groups -- such as the parents of children with special needs -- have had a positive effect on the schools too. Although they still would have access to the legal system and public opinion, taking away their electoral muscle would weaken their valuable advocacy.
We may need to shrink the size of the school board or scrutinize its relationships with the superintendent of schools. We certainly need some more responsible people on the board. However, we can't give up an ounce of democracy.
A lot of folks are working hard to make things better. Let's have Mr. Chavous's hearings, but let them be thorough and fair, let them develop remedies where needed and then let us move on.
-- Ray Browne
is a former Georgetown advisory neighborhood commissioner.