Sen. John Hainkel thinks it would be a good idea if we stopped electing school board members in Orleans Parish and had the mayor and a panel of university presidents appoint them instead. As I understand it, Hainkel believes the current board is too embroiled in petty political infighting and has been largely ineffective in dealing with the system's troubles.
Having the mayor of the city of New Orleans and a group of university presidents appoint board members would certainly reduce petty politics among the school board members. That's because all the school board members would be FOM (Friends of the Mayor) and all the petty politicking would take place during the nominating and selection process. A look at Chicago's school board -- which is appointed by the mayor -- reveals a number of Mayor Richard Daley's former staffers or campaign workers. And if you think for one moment that those university presidents would bring any sort of ivory tower dignity to the process, you've obviously never spent any time with the byzantine political tableau that is university administration.
As a New Orleanian, I have to say that Hainkel's suggestion -- to take away the power of voters to decide who oversees the school system -- is, at first take, a little insulting. It provokes that feeling I sometimes get, that there a whole lot of people in this state and in the Legislature who just wish Louisiana's largest city wasn't New Orleans: poor, black, Catholic, democratic, free-wheelin' New Orleans. I don't have any hard evidence at hand that backs up this feeling. It's just a feeling. And this proposal triggers it.
On the other hand, the voting public -- here, like everywhere else in the nation -- does have a tendency to fall for the okey-doke when it comes to candidates for public office (You needexamples? Representative David Duke, Governor Edwin Edwards, President George W. Bush.) Surface has held sway over substance ever since John F. Kennedy slapped on a layer of make-up before heading out to cream Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. So, insulting as it is, there may be a bit of logic to Hainkel's appointed board idea.
But, why limit the proposal to New Orleans? Yes, Orleans Parish has one of the most problematic school districts in the state, but it's not like the rest of Louisiana's public school districts are topping any national school rankings. If an appointed board will supposedly be a boost to Orleans Parish's struggling schools, wouldn't all the parishes in this state benefit from such an arrangement? If this will improve "troubled" schools, won't it send "good" schools into the stratosphere? Shouldn't this good fortune be spread throughout the state?
On the national level, appointed school boards are not unheard of. In New York City, the board of education is appointed by the mayor and the city's borough presidents. Washington, D.C. schools are headed by a board, of which half are appointed by the mayor and half are elected. School system boards have been appointed by mayors in Chicago since 1995, in Detroit since 1999, in Cleveland since 1998, and in Boston since 1992. In Englewood, N.J., where the mayor has always appointed the school board, voters recently decided they wanted that decision put back into the hands of citizens. So, across the nation, cities are trying to deal with the difficulties of failing public education systems by shifting power and responsibility to or from the shoulders of voters, mayors and other political leaders.
Is it a good idea? Only time will tell. In Boston, a group of parent activists is now pushing a measure to take leadership of the public schools out of the mayor's office and put it in the lap of the city council. According to a report by Education Week, the group, known as Children First, describes the improvement brought about by the mayor's appointee power as "miniscule." Not a good thing, seeing as how Boston's school committee, as school boards are known in Massachusetts, spent a reported $1.6 billion between 1992 and 1996.
Whatever happens to Hainkel's legislation, I sure hope the people in charge take a good look around the nation to see what's working and what's not. Two things are clear, though. One, that shifting responsibility or accountability onto the shoulders of the mayor and a group of college administrators is not a magic bullet. Two, John Hainkel will probably have a hard sell here in the city, trying to convince New Orleanians that someone else is better qualified to pick their school board members.