THERE IS A NEW school board. The majority that ran the board, for better or worse, for the last few years is gone. New coalitions will be formed. A new board president will be chosen. As the new board takes shape, it is important that new priorities for the 1980s also take shape.
The school board of the 1970s never went beyond the many ideas for reforming public education that came out of the turbulent social atmosphere of the late 1960s. Those ideas included having dozens of community-based school boards with different ideas running schools in every neighborhood, denouncing standardized tests as being racist and useless, allowing students to study anything and sometimes nothing under the guise of academic freedom, anddoing away with much of school discipline. Questions of how to deal with those ideas have dominated the board's thinking for the past 10 years.
During those 10 years, the board has also fought with a succession of supertendents -- most of whom stayed no more than two years -- over the validity of the latest theory for ending the woes of the schools. Board members fought with each other too; their meetings became raucous, loud events. The board became distant from the growing problems of class-cutters, lack of discipline and students who could not read or do basic math problems.
Since Vincent Reed became supertendent in 1975, the board has quieted down some. The coming of an elected mayor and city council in 1974 also meant that the school board was no longer the focus of political activity in the city. Consequently, interest in and attention to the board has diminished.
Since the mid-1970's the board's one act to deal with the school system's problems has been to support Supertendent Reed's Competency Based Curriculum, a step-by-step teaching method that is not yet in all the schools. But further action to deal with immediate problems has been lost amid the infighting and defensiveness of board members. The majority took one step forward earlier this year by taking a firm stand in contract negotiations against the growing and self-interested power of the teachers' union. A strike ensued. The joint actions of the board and the union during the strike (and subsequent dragging negotiations and more strike threats through the summer months, up to the first day of school this fall) have eroded public confidence in the board, the teachers and the school system.
The new school board needs to break cleanly with that history. Unlike its predecessors, it needs to take the offensive in dealing with policy problems and stop making excuses for the state of the public schools. Of central importance for the new board is helping superintendent Reed, who is doing a good job.
The new board needs to address five policy areas: competency testing for teachers, both for new teachers and the current faculity; promotional standards for students to stop social promotions; assurance that classes are of reasonable size and free from threats of intruders and that the schools have enough money.
These are basic items. How the new board addresses them will determine whether parents and other interested citizens can regain full confidence in the public schools.