Voters will decide this November whether they would rather trade in their elected board of education for an appointed one, but little data exists to help them make an informed decision.

If they were to base their decision on the example of other districts, the more than 11,000 elected local school boards nationwide would speak for themselves. The total overwhelms the roughly 40 local districts with appointed boards, according to data from the Education Commission of the States. The commission doesn’t have data on approximately 3,000 others.

At a state level:

  • 25 have appointed boards.
  • 12 have elected boards.
  • 11 have boards composed of a combination of appointed and elected members.
  • Two have no state board of education at all.

However Hawaii is unique, because it’s the only state with a single school board that oversees statewide and local operations.

Statistically, there seems to be no correlation between the type of education board and student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Florida and Mississippi, both with appointed state boards, have the lowest average assessment scores in the nation, according an analysis of Education Commission of the States data and National Center for Education Statistics data by Civil Beat. New Mexico and Alabama, both with elected boards, only slightly outperform them. At the other end of the spectrum, the top four assessment scores in the nation go to Massachusetts with a combination board, Minnesota with no school board, New Hampshire with an appointed board and Vermont with an elected board.

The best comparison for Hawaii might be with an urban school board rather than a state board, said Gregory McGinity, senior policy director for the Broad Foundation, a national philanthropy with a focus on promoting school system accountability. The Broad Foundation favors having mayors appoint school superintendents, particularly in urban districts.

“We have clear evidence in Washington, D.C. that having mayors in charge has improved student achievement,” said McGinity. “That principle applies to states too, given the evidence of what’s happening in cities.”

Hawaii’s transition to a governor-appointed board of education would therefore be a “necessary but insufficient condition for bringing about dramatic change,” McGinity said. Gov. Linda Lingle earlier this year actually proposed the same approach backed by the Broad Foundation. She sought a governor-appointed superintendent, which she argued would make the board of education unnecessary. McGinity said such a setup — or to a lesser extent the compromise setup of an appointed board — would transfer the responsibility for the department’s performance to the governor and help streamline the educational agenda through one person. All this would help increase the system’s overall accountability.

“Right now, when you ask the public in Hawaii, ‘who is responsible for education?’ everyone is sitting around twiddling their fingers and pointing at the next guy,” he said.

Despite any shortcomings of an elected board, Hawaii State Board of Education Chairman Garrett Toguchi said an appointed board would be even worse. An appointed board would lose touch with the people and strip them of their ability to have input in educational policies, he said. At least with the status quo, citizens can make their displeasure known at the polls and hold the board responsible.

“People will hold you accountable if you screw up badly enough,” he said, pointing out that this is not the first time since 1964 that Hawaii’s voters have had the chance to oust the elected board and replace it with an appointed one. “When it comes to educational policy, I think the voters have a clear idea of who’s responsible.”

But a governor too is held accountable at the polls, McGinity pointed out — and maybe with even more consistency, since a gubernatorial candidate’s policies get far more attention during a campaign than the combined attention garnered by education board candidates.

“My hunch is that more people know who the governor is than know who the board members are,” he said. “The governor is elected too, and by far more voters than the board members are.” He argues that putting the burden on the governor in effect would increase voters’ say on educational policies.

This year’s election would be the perfect time to focus attention on the issue and begin asking gubernatorial candidates about who they would appoint to the board if the ballot measure passes, he said. Education is such a high-profile issue in Hawaii that McGinity said he could not imagine whoever takes the governor’s office after this campaign will appoint “anything but stellar folks” to the board of education. The governor’s reputation would depend on those appointments.

“Is there significant evidence that (an appointed board) in and of itself in Hawaii will double performance of Hawaii students?” McGinity asked rhetorically. “No. There is no single intervention across the board that would do anything like that. But this is the first step toward a more strategic education agenda.”

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.