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The state Board of Education is appointed. It used to be elected. Is one way better?

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

School boards across the U.S. either consist of elected members or appointed ones.

"Most school boards throughout the United States are elected," said Anna Deese of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Deese also served as an elected school board member in Montana. She told HPR the primary benefit of elected boards is that members are more accountable to the public.

But there are flaws.

Deese noted the theory of holding members accountable through a vote is often counterintuitive. Nationally, voters don't usually assess members, and vote for or against them based on their outcomes.

Then there's voter participation.

"Overall, the elections are normally not very competitive. A lot of times, the voting rates — the participation rates of the electorate — are very low," Deese told HPR.

That was true for Hawaiʻi.

2010 was the last time voters elected members to BOE

In the race for an at-large seat, 36% of the voters left their ballots blank. Government accountant Pamela Young received the most votes at just 15%.

"At the very heart of an elected board is the democratic process. People have the opportunity to vote for people that represent them," said Patricia Halagao, a professor at UH Mānoa's College of Education. She also served as an appointed member of the state BOE between 2013 and 2016.

While elected board members are held more accountable to voters. Deese and Halagao believe another flaw is whether or not a majority of voters research candidates.

"Sometimes you wonder how much people do their own research on candidates and vetting of candidates," said Halagao. "It might end up being a popularity contest or name recognition."

Another disadvantage of elected boards is the political motives of members.

"You can have situations where an elected board might be bogged down in political shenanigans, so to speak," said Deese. "But schools are inherently political because we're creating the next generation of voters."

Halagao believes there is a perception or suspicion that some elected board members use an education board as a stepping-stone to other political offices.

Today, the state Board of Education is appointed

The governor nominates members, and the state Senate either confirms or rejects them.

Hawaiʻi's elected board members were divided by district. But appointed boards can be chosen by skillset.

"The idea of a well-functioning board is that you have different members of the community," said Halagao. "Whether it be different professions, different constituents of community groups, different voices — represented on the board. And so that, when a board is appointed, it's a more deliberate attempt to reflect the diversity of our community."

Halagao said another advantage to an appointed board would be continuity — allowing members to oversee shifts in the public education system from beginning to end.

But that doesn't mean there aren't any flaws to an appointed board. Deese said appointed school boards can be slow to act or change, and only the governor or mayor is held accountable.

Deese told HPR there's no research suggesting one type of board is better than the other. She said that historically there are examples of both not functioning in the best interest of everyone.

"School boards aren't that connected to the classroom," she said. "The folks around the board table, the trustees, aren't in the classroom. So the policies that they make, the budgets that they set, definitely have an impact that has to get filtered through the actual practices of site-based practitioners... So there's quite a few disconnection points that could happen there."

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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