With Baltimore City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton increasingly under fire from critics, the question of who is responsible for the success or failure of the system has become one of the central issues in the mayor's race. Not all of the major candidates have issued comprehensive policy papers on education, but they have all staked out views on the governance of the system, with the general consensus that a nearly 20-year-old arrangement in which the mayor and governor jointly appoint the school board isn't working.

How exactly to change it, though, is a matter of some debate. Former mayor Sheila Dixon, businessman David Warnock and City Councilmen Nick Mosby and Carl Stokes all support a partially elected school board. Ms. Dixon would also seek mayoral control of the other appointments. State Senator Catherine Pugh has introduced legislation in Annapolis this year that would give the mayor sole appointment power, though she has not voiced support for elected members. Attorney Elizabeth Embry and activist DeRay Mckesson both want City Hall to engage more directly in school governance, but in their responses to the Sun editorial board's questionnaire, they stop short of calling for a change to the governance structure.

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The current arrangement arose out of a 1996 settlement in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and others who alleged that the state had failed in its responsibility to provide an adequate education for Baltimore students. The General Assembly enacted a package of reforms in 1997 that both promised a significant increase in state aid to city schools but along with it more state oversight in the form of the joint appointment structure. (A key architect of the deal was the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the father of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.)

It's fair now to question whether the shared governance has lived up to its promise. City schools have gotten more money, to be sure, but its perennial deficits and periodic problems with mismanagement call into question whether the promised oversight has been effective. Governors have been hands-off in terms of appointees to the board; as Mr. Stokes has pointed out there has not been a single instance of a governor rejecting a mayor's pick for the board (though former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. came close when Martin O'Malley was mayor). And in practice, mayors have held substantial sway over who is appointed as CEO.

What's missing, though, is clear public accountability. Even if mayors effectively have substantial control over appointments, they are not generally perceived as responsible for the district's success or failure nor are they generally involved even indirectly in either policy or management. Several of the candidates want to change that to one degree or another, whether by advocating full mayoral appointment of the board, as in Ms. Pugh's case, or in establishing a Mayor's Office of Education Reform, as Mr. Mosby has proposed.

Legislation is moving forward in the House of Delegates this year to add two elected members to the city board, and while we don't think that would be harmful in and of itself, we are concerned about the precedent that sets. While there is no clear evidence that elected or appointed boards work better on the whole, we have reason to doubt that moving toward an elected board is the right answer for Baltimore. A virtue of the current system is that as a result of the consent decree and 1997 reforms, members of the board are required to possess certain kinds of expertise — some members of the board must have substantial experience in running a business or non profit or in special education, for example. That would be lost under an elected board. And the politics inherent in an elected school board would likely interfere with the at times unpopular decisions necessary to reform the system.

Some advocates would go so far as to more or less eliminate the school board altogether, and they point to successes under that approach in New York and elsewhere. We're not ready to go that far; in the right mayor's hands, it might work, but in general we believe the challenges faced by the city school system are so great as to require leadership from people who are not also concerned with running the police department and making sure the trash gets picked up. But we do need a clear line of accountability that the system presently lacks, and for that reason, we hope the next mayor will make it a top priority to persuade the General Assembly to give him or her the unfettered authority to name members to the board.

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