School Boards Don't Work

11/05/2010 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John M. Eger Van Deerlin Endowed Chair of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University (SDSU)

Obama border czar, Alan Bersin, who was once superintendent of San Diego Unified, kept handy a quote from Mark Twain on his desk:

"In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards."

It is no surprise why the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said last year "Mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering [to provide] the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools."

If you care at all about whether the next generation of our citizens and workers are well educated, civil and community minded, the issue of accountability is paramount.

Very few people have any idea what the school boards are doing anyway.

At present, mayors run the schools in fewer than a dozen big cities; seven have full control over management and operations. It not as easy as it might seem for other cities to make a similar change.

In study completed last fall by University of San Diego's School of Leadership and Education Services, full control of school boards -- including finance, operations, picking the superintendent and the board -- would require a change in the city's charter and the state constitution of California.

Other states have similar restrictions.

Our schools across the United States have a number of problems and frankly, there is no silver bullet.

But something needs to done about governance and accountability. The matter of education of our young folks is not just for parents... it is a critical issue for America.

In a seminal report in 1983, called "A Nation at Risk," a so-called blue ribbon commission, found that the system itself was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." In 2010, we are more at risk and our systems of education across America, sadly needs not simply reform, but a complete overhaul.

Compared against 30 other top nations in a world study reported in 2007, we're 25th in math and 21st in science. Not that these International tests should be our holy grail to reform but they do tell us something is wrong.

Diane Ravitch is on the record saying, "Mayoral control is no solution to poor academic performance. It may or may not lead to better, more efficient provision of services." But it sure tells you whom to hold accountable.

Boston, New York City, Chicago and Cleveland are among those cities taking control of their schools. And the trend toward mayoral control is growing. But cities everywhere need our support and encouragement. Schools everywhere must be reinvented. Only an informed and engaged electorate will make it happen.

Kenneth Wong, a Brown University education professor, examined test scores of the 100 largest school districts from 1999 to 2003 and found that students in mayor-controlled school systems often perform better than those in other urban systems. Test scores in mayor-run districts are rising "significantly," he says.

All cities -- big cities in particular -- need to think seriously about taking control of their schools.

Citizens everywhere need to get involved in the business of education.