Democracy and Schools

IT is hardly news that America's urban schools face unprecedented challenges. When political bickering on city councils and school boards prevents development of solutions to these myriad problems, it is usually the superintendent who gets the ax. Right now 18 large US cities, including Boston, Washington, Detroit, Houston, and San Francisco, are seeking new superintendents.

Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn has seized on discontent with the Boston School Committee's handling of its search for a new superintendent to push his latest plan to change the way the schools are governed. He wants to abolish the elected School Committee and appoint the superintendent himself. The City Council would approve the school budget, as it does now. The council has asked the state legislature to approve the change. Boston would become the first major city where the mayor is directly responsible for education.

We do not question that Mayor Flynn's motive is to improve the city's schools. They have been overpoliticized for decades, buffeted by the 1970s controversy over busing, and victimized by School Committee micromanagement that has resulted in a parade of superintendents over the last 10 years.

But taking power out of the hands of a democratically elected school board and placing it in the hands of mayoral appointees is not the way to go. Democracy is not the problem; a bloated school committee and top-heavy administrative bureaucracy are.

The plan runs counter to the national trend toward involving parents and communities more, not less, in running schools. The most extreme example is Chicago. There, a reform plan took power away from the central administration and gave it to local councils consisting of parents, members of the local community, and teachers.

The effort has run into constitutional problems because of the way local council members are chosen, but the Illinois Supreme Court recognized the importance of the experiment when it gave the state legislature time to correct the problem. A similar experiment is under way in New York City.

Given the ethnic mix of Boston and other large US cities, the best way to guarantee that different racial and socioeconomic groups are represented in the formulation of school policy is through an elected board. Experience has shown that when city halls run school systems, the schools all too often turn into patronage centers for political cronies.

Parents, community leaders, and business need to become more involved with issues involving curriculum, performance evaluation, magnet schools, and special education. That's what local control is all about.

Certainly the Boston School Committee is ripe for some kind of reform. But abolishing an elected committee in the long run could do far more harm than good to Mayor Flynn's goal of improving educational opportunity for all his city's youth.

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