All of us who have a stake in Baltimore City Public Schools share a concern about the system's academic performance, financial management, transparency and responsiveness to the community. But there is another concern: It's often not clear who is ultimately responsible for addressing these issues, and it's about to become less so.
The General Assembly this year approved legislation that will eventually add two elected members to the city Board of School Commissioners. This will further dilute the already cloudy lines of accountability and create new barriers to bringing on the most qualified and representative members of the school board. It is hard to imagine that requiring prospective elected board members to file for the office, mount campaigns and solicit contributions will make the board more representative of the constituencies it serves.
On top of that, an amendment was added during the waning hours of the legislative session that requires two members of the General Assembly be part of the school board committee that identifies the next school system chief executive. Giving legislators a formal role in the CEO selection process is both unprecedented and impractical and will inevitably politicize future efforts to recruit exceptional leaders.
Perhaps most critically, these changes to the board move us away from what we believe is the most promising strategy to improve accountability and transparency: restoring Baltimore's public school system to local control.
A landmark 1997 agreement between the city and state brought desperately needed resources to Baltimore schools in exchange for a new model of shared governance in which Baltimore's mayor and Maryland's governor jointly appoint the board. The shared governance model, which is still in place almost two decades later, has become outdated, however. The dual appointment of board members by a mayor and governor with different ideas, different terms of office and sometimes different political party affiliations makes it far more difficult to set a clear direction for the system along with a path of accountability.
With the recent naming of a new CEO, the case for mayoral control is all the more powerful. It is hard to imagine the kind of change just effected being made by a partially-elected board with legislative representation. We urge our next mayor, the governor and Baltimore City's legislators and City Council to refocus on accountability for our schools during the CEO transition.
Around the country, we see that many urban school systems that are improving are the responsibility of the mayor. Mayoral control has helped spark needed change in Boston and New York, improving student performance and working to close the achievement gap. In our view, Baltimore should return to that model, with a board appointed by the mayor, making it crystal clear who is ultimately responsible.
The mayor is uniquely positioned to expand the reach of our schools and have them serve as community assets that provide health care for kids and families, improve public safety and foster community development. Only the mayor can pull together the many stakeholders needed to broaden schools' roles in our communities.
A locally appointed school board is only one step toward improving accountability throughout the system, however. There are more immediate actions available that should be taken.
Of the city's 188 public schools, two dozen boast strong local advisory boards that include parent representation. We should learn from and build on those examples to nurture a citywide culture of parental engagement and responsiveness. Parents don't want to run the school system; they just want to be sure that their children are being well served and have a meaningful opportunity to help guide the work of their local schools.
The board should also give the public more information about system finances. That includes developing and sharing longer-term budget plans, carefully determining the ongoing financial impact of labor agreements and providing quarterly budget updates to the City Council and state to keep the public informed and give policymakers time to take corrective action to address shortfalls. More transparency will also help solve the ongoing funding dispute with our charter schools.
While we focus on local control, we must also ensure that school board members have the strongest possible qualifications, with experience with such issues as school leadership, finances, special education, communications and public engagement.
And we should continue to preserve the built-in accountability the system has with citywide "choice" for middle and high schools. This freedom of choice allows families to vote with their feet in order to find the best academic environment for their children.
Finally, all of us want school governance that promotes equity and narrows the achievement gap that developed through decades of structural racism, leaving many young people ill-prepared for productive lives. The board should take deliberate steps to ensure that diverse voices from deep within our communities are heard and that their concerns are addressed.
Kurt Schmoke is president of the University of Baltimore and a former Baltimore mayor. Matt Gallagher is president of the Goldseker Foundation. Tom Wilcox (Twilcox@bcf.org) is president and a trustee of the Baltimore Community Foundation, where Messrs. Schmoke and Gallagher are also trustees.