By any measure the Prince George’s County school system is adrift. Sometimes school buses arrive late, or not at all, stranding youngsters. Sometimes class schedules are incorrect. Sometimes employees don’t get paid on time. And P.G.’s schools compete with Baltimore for the state’s worst test scores and most suspensions, absentees and drop-outs.
The P.G. school superintendent’s office ought to have a revolving door — seven have come and gone in the past 14 years including Dr. Andre Hornsby, imprisoned for a school kickback scheme with his 24-year-old girlfriend.
And in the 1970’s and 1980’s P.G. was the unfortunate victim of a school busing experiment, a bit of social engineering, that only helped accelerate white flight. Today’s student enrollment is 67.6 percent black, 22.4 percent Hispanic and 4.6 percent white.
Now the county is suffering from black flight — an exodus of middle-class African-American families fleeing P.G.’s crime, taxes and bad schools by moving to Charles County, whose schools are now majority minorities.
Over the past decade, P.G. school enrollment dropped from 134,000 to 123,000, an 8.2 percent decline, and P.G. leads the state in free breakfasts and lunches served to poor kids. The system has 24,854 Title I students and 15,099 English language learners.
Meanwhile, a lackluster county school board seems incapable of addressing the crisis. The elected board gets bogged down in petty turf battles and is constantly at odds with whichever unlucky soul happens to be the school superintendent du jour. The last one, Bill Hite, just took off for Philadelphia.
Insiders say the problem is a lack of qualified school board candidates. The nine members run in nine separate districts attracting few high-caliber individuals and little voter interest. In a county where the Democratic primary is the only election that matters and where the school board election is way, way down the ballot, almost anyone can, and does, get elected.
Various attempts at reforming the school board over the past decade haven’t succeeded. In 2002, after the board fired a popular superintendent, state lawmakers replaced the elected board with a new board appointed by the governor and the county executive. Then, in 2006, an elected board was restored in response to public pressure. Subsequently, the blend of members at large and by district was reduced to nine single-member districts, the current set-up.
Watching over all this has been Rushern Baker, the current P.G. county executive who, as a state delegate, led the 2002 fight to abolish the elected board and whose three children are PGPS graduates.
Baker was elected county executive in 2010 as a reform candidate after the incumbent, Jack Johnson (who defeated Baker in 2006), went to prison for corruption and kickbacks.
Basically, Baker is fighting to keep P.G. from becoming another Baltimore or Detroit. And, so far, he’s making a courageous effort. In order to spur economic development, he’s established a $50 million incentive fund to attract new businesses. To get state funding for a sorely needed new hospital, he sold his soul to the devil (Senate President Mike Miller) and led the charge for gambling expansion including a new P.G. casino.
He pushed a watered-down ethics bill through the state legislature that provides P.G. officials with a fig leaf of propriety, and he’s pulling out the stops to make P.G. the new FBI headquarters site.
But Baker knows that none of this matters if his schools go to hell in a handcart. So, this month, he’s taking the biggest gamble of his life, he’s asking state lawmakers to give him control of the school system.
Why now? Why so late in the legislative session without public debate? Because Baker doesn’t like any of the three new superintendent applicants. Instead of dooming P.G. schools to more dysfunction, he wants to take control, find a suitable superintendent and run the schools himself.
Baker makes a compelling case: “Our public schools rank alongside crime and lack of commercial development as our biggest perceived liabilities. Every dollar we have must be used efficiently and every resource we have must reach our students. Dividing our county into ‘county’ versus ‘schools’ systems has prevented this.”
The way Baker sees it, the inefficiency and lack of public accountability caused by having an independent elected school board is no longer tolerable. Make the superintendent a cabinet post and give the county executive budget and personnel control. That way, a single point of contract — the county executive — can direct all the county’s resources (social services, health, public safety, transportation, finance, etc.) into the school system in an efficient, centralized manner.
Makes a lot of sense, but reforming the education- industrial complex can be a career-ending experience. Just ask former Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost his bet that city voters would place their kids’ educations above a corrupt, featherbedded, white-collar welfare school system.
Baker’s takeover bill is already being watered down in Annapolis. The teachers union wants the pliable school board to bargain their contracts, the county council wants more budget control and lawmakers from other counties worry that Baker’s takeover precedent will spread to their counties.
Rushern Baker deserves vast credit for trying to mend a broken school system. Most politicians lack that degree of courage and responsibility. But, in the process, he’s facing an uphill battle against all the powerful, entrenched interests that produce and protect the status quo.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.