When Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III announced that he was launching a takeover bid of the struggling public school system, I couldn’t help but to reflect on the countless times I’ve heard something similar in my career as an educator.
It’s like Deja Vu all over again.
Turning the schools over to folks who have never taught in a classroom or run school operations and somehow expecting the schools will improve seems terribly counterintuitive.
We’ve heard for years now the familiar calls to "run the schools like a business." Find a corporate CEO type and he'll cut spending, streamline operations, develop sound fiscal policies, and get a better return from each unit of product, or student.
We've also heard cries to "run the schools like the military." Let's appoint a general and he'll enforce discipline among both teachers and students alike. Our schools will become more efficient. He'll represent a take charge no nonsense management approach, and whip everybody in shape. The harsh reality became clear in that teachers and students are not members of the army. They can quit, soldiers can't and the general realized the he was not an educator.
And still we continue to hear that local politicians are best suited to preside over education. The mayor, or in this case county executive, will provide the level of common sense political management and oversight. He will hold all stakeholders accountable for delivering world class instruction for all students.
But the notion that people with virtually no experience, are more capable of making educational policy decisions than the people who actually deliver instruction every day, does not seem rational. Politicians are not educators.
These schemes have not worked anywhere else, so what makes us think it will work in Prince George’s? And in some cases, residents are not convinced takeovers make schools better.
For instance, in New York City, which saw a school takeover in 2002, a 2012 Quinnipiac poll found that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was less trusted than the teachers union to put students first. The poll also found that New Yorkers want the next mayor to share power with some kind of educational group. And educational outcomes over the years have been mixed: after the take over in New York test results for 3rd and 5th graders improved but high school graduation and attendance rates stagnated.
In Philadelphia ,after years of poor achievement and budget crises, the state replaced the school board in 2001 with a school reform commission consisting of three members appointed by the governor and two by the mayor. The district adopted a common curriculum and new accountability measures, among other changes, that resulted in higher achievement. But, it continues to face budget problems and tumultuous leadership
And in Oakland, the takeover in 2003 was set off by a financial crisis that eventually necessitated $100 million in state emergency money that the district is still paying back. While there have been improvements in school financing and test scores, the district’s enrollment continues to shrink. The state gave the schools back to the community in 2009.
To his credit, Baker apparently realizes that success in his position is largely determined by the success of the school system. But the real quesiton is: what is the source of the problem?
Among the most pressing issues for Prince Georges County Schools is the constant turnover in leadership that keeps the system and its teaching corps without a clear pedagogical focus, the debilitating apathy of far too many parents to engage in a substantive way with their children’s schooling, persistent and childish bickering among school board members, and the students themselves who appear caught in the crossfire of all the rancor.
In addition, over the past ten years the district has lost approximately 13,544 students. At its peak in the 2003 school year, student enrollment was over 135,000. The system, according to the district’s website, now has an enrollment of 123, 741. At a per pupil allocation of $14,019, that represents a loss to the systems operating budget of just shy of $190 million dollars. This while, neighboring Montgomery and Fairfax County Schools are nearing, and is some case, exceeding capacity.
Our schools need visionary leadership over the long term. In the end, that person must be a qualified educator imbued with the authority to make tough decisions without political considerations or micro-management. So if Baker does assume control of the schools, he might quickly realize the folly of having jumped into this hornet’s nest.
Alfonzo Porter is a contributor to The RootDC and the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a speaker, consultant, former teacher and school administrator.