With the departure of Jose Banda from the post of superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, we’ve seen the usual hand-wringing and recriminations over the future of the district. Banda’s departure led the Seattle Times to publish an article and an editorial decrying supposed meddling by the board in the operations of the district.
The editorial hinted at the Times’s true agenda — taking away power over the school district from the people’s elected representatives:
By the widest margin, most schools are overseen by school boards, not boards and mayors, or mayors alone. But the chronic melodrama on the Seattle School Board certainly stirs a curiosity for a change in governance.
The real story, the one the Seattle Times does not want to tell for fear of undermining their anti-democratic agenda, is one of repeated mismanagement by a succession of superintendents and of a central staff that is unresponsive or overtly hostile to the board and the general public.
For nearly 15 years Seattle has had superintendents who lost public faith through bad leadership or outright scandal. After the beloved John Stanford suddenly died three years after being hired, his successor, Joseph Olschefske, left after a financial scandal. Olschefske’s successor, Raj Manhas, quit after the school board listened to public anger over a flawed school closure plan he pushed through. The plan was quickly reversed when it emerged the district had badly erred in its student population estimates.
Manhas’s successor, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, was fired after another financial scandal. Her immediate successor was the interim Susan Enfield, who like Jose Banda left the district when it became clear that the board was not going to sit back and let them have free reign over the people’s schools.
Banda left scandal in his wake as well. Though the school district’s finances appear sound, the horrifying story of a Garfield High student who was raped on a school trip and failed to get justice from the district suggests that Banda was not quite an effective leader.
Banda cited the debate over math textbooks in his departure letter, but these are often contentious issues in any school district. A good superintendent would have navigated it more effectively, accepting the board’s decision and moving on. After all, math curriculum figured prominently in the 2011 school board campaign, and parents had been vocal in their call for a different approach. Rather than accept the verdict of the board that employs him and the public that he serves, Banda — already looking for the exit — used the issue as one of his justifications for leaving. He wasn’t a good leader. He was a quitter.
The common denominator here isn’t the school board. Instead it is poor quality superintendents who are not accountable to the board or the public, who believe the Seattle Times when they say the superintendent’s job is to do as they please.
These issues play out against the broader backdrop of an all-out national battle over the future of public education. Since 2001 the federal government, under both a Republican and a Democratic president, have pursued education policies emphasizing standardized testing, school closures, and mass teacher firings. These policies have created sizable public backlash in cities large and small, in districts urban and suburban.
Seattle has played an important role in this backlash. One of the largest boycotts of standardized tests took place in Seattle in 2013. A majority of the current school board shares the broad skepticism of so-called “education reform” policies, a stance shared by large swaths of Seattle parents and voters.
Which brings us right back to the Seattle Times’ attack on the school board. In cities like Chicago, control of school districts have been taken away from elected representatives who might oppose mass teacher firings, school closures, and teaching to the test. The districts have been instead turned over to the mayor, on the theory that a municipal executive can better oversee these unpopular reforms.
Mayoral control is thus a deliberate attack on democracy in order to force through reforms that might not survive the democratic process. No wonder that Tim Burgess and Reuven Carlyle, two of Seattle’s leading proponents of teaching to the test and undermining public schools through charter schools, are quoted extensively in the Seattle Times article attacking the elected board for doing their jobs.
As it turns out, mayoral control is extremely unpopular, and may cost Rahm Emanuel his job as mayor in next year’s election.
It is also not very effective. I’ve worked in a mayor’s office, serving in the administration of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn from 2011 to 2013. The idea that a mayor would provide close oversight of the schools is ridiculous and flies in the face of reality.
Seattle’s mayor oversees 11,000 employees in 27 departments. They include two huge utilities, Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, that would be big businesses were they privately owned. It includes the Seattle Department of Transportation, itself a huge responsibility. And of course, it includes the Seattle Police Department. Overseeing the police was nearly a full-time job for Mayor McGinn, just as it is for any mayor in any city.
If Seattle’s schools were under mayoral control, they would have to compete with all 27 other departments for the mayor’s attention. He or she would be able to devote only a brief amount of time to the schools. Instead real control would be exercised by a bureaucrat who is several steps removed from the voters.
In other words, power would really rest with a superintendent-like figure who would recreate all of the failings of Seattle’s recent string of school superintendents.
Seattle’s school district suffers not only from a series of bad superintendents. It also suffers from a central staff that is incompetent and contemptuous of the public and parents. Central staff were leading an effort to try and undermine the board’s math curriculum decision until Banda finally called them off. They badly mismanaged the process of drawing new school boundaries in the fall of 2013. They have failed to resolve longstanding issues with special education and advanced education. And as we are seeing with a federal Title IX investigation spurred in part by the Garfield rape case, the central staff are unable to guarantee the basic safety of students or compliance with federal civil rights laws.
The last thing Seattle needs is a superintendent who has too much power to implement their will. What we need is more democracy and a board that is even more involved. State Representative Gerry Pollet understands this well, as quoted in the Seattle Times article:
“There are some areas where I would encourage the board to delve deeper and manage more,” Pollet said, especially regarding the special-education department and the continued overcrowding of schools.
Seattle residents and parents care deeply about their public schools. They want them to be great. They have opened their wallets, repeatedly, to support public education. They’ve elected a school board that reflects the public’s desire to be engaged participants. A good superintendent will embrace this spirit, rejecting the undemocratic, unpopular, and ineffective “education reform” policies of punishing kids and teachers.
A good superintendent will instead emphasize the basics. They’ll clean out the central staff and replace them with competent people who treat the public with respect. The next superintendent will be a national leader in blazing a trail away from standardized tests and fads toward holistic education practices that ensure every child gets a good education.
Those are the qualities the Seattle school board — and the people of Seattle — should demand from the next superintendent. The board and the public should be full partners in the process, and should strongly assert their duty of oversight to ensure the superintendent and his staff get it right. A good superintendent will not be fazed by it.
After all, that’s how good public schools are run in a functioning democracy.