Right up front, let us tackle the negatives for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker’s plan to take over the county’s public schools.
It is a surprise move without “official” input from residents.
Baker’s track record for keeping campaign promises is mixed at best.
His education priorities—other than improving schools—are unknown.
There might be a monolithic , impolitic, Michelle Rhee-like superintendent lurking in the background.
Even with those and other caveats, trying something bold is a better idea than maintaining the status quo. The current setup is unacceptable.
Baker’s plan would give the county executive power to nominate a schools superintendent and authority over the $1.7 billion schools budget. He says the change in structure would provide transparency and accountability that does not currently exist.
With two children in Prince George’s public schools, I can say accountability is too often out of reach when it comes to dealing with the
system. You have to get children to the classroom before you can educate them. In Prince George’s, what should be a simple task of transporting children to and from school is a daily adventure. Will the county school bus show up on time? Will it show up at all? How late will the bus arrive at school? Will the elementary school students be able to provide bus drivers directions to their afternoon bus stops?
What do you say to a 10-year-old who asks, “How come the bus driver doesn’t know where he’s going?”
I know of two instances where even elected officials could not get transportation problems fixed for their public school children.
To those who do not experience this daily dance, the routine probably sounds like an inconvenience. It is a symptom of larger problems. The same way that good teachers must have high expectations for their students, parents and children must have high expectations for their public schools system.
A school system that cannot meet its most basic responsibilities sends a “stay away” signal to parents. Most often, those parents who take heed of the warning signal are those the school system can least afford to lose. An overwhelming majority of my friends send their children to private schools. If they can pay, even if it is a financial struggle, they stay away.
Still, Baker’s move caught most county residents off guard. Almost no one—except for Baker’s closest confidantes—expected this fundamental change in the structure of county government because there was no public comment period. There was no input from residents, especially those engaged wholeheartedly in the county’s public education system. And the route taken to get the proposal passed in the General Assembly—as an amendment to an existing bill—means that there will be no public hearings on the matter.
It has the feel of the kind of conspiratorial, backroom dealing—often with someone profiting illegally or immorally at the end—that took place in prior county administrations. And face it, it has been a tough task for Baker to ensure that county fiscal operations under his current control are beyond reproach. It will be much harder for Baker, whose campaign was as much about ethical reform in county government as anything else, to ensure that all the contracts, real estate deals and job appointments that come along with the $1.7 billion schools budget are done above board.
And what of the three current finalists for schools superintendent? I say reopen the search. With due respect to the trio, chances are that the pool of applicants would improve if the superintendent reports directly to a single elected official instead of to a board of education whose record is, well, the reason for Baker’s power grab.
State Del. Jolene Ivey, head of the Prince George’s delegation and a supporter of Baker’s plan, said when Baker and other elected officials meet with residents around the county education consistently tops the list what residents want to discuss. “That’s what we hear,” she said. “What they want to talk about usually are schools. The reality is that [Baker] is doing all he can do with the current set up. The question is what can we do differently.”
That’s the million-dollar question. What can Baker do differently with budget and personnel authority than what has happened with the board of education? Accountability for the 17,000 school employees is key. For example, if the head of transportation for the school system does not adequately train bus drivers or doesn’t hire enough bus drivers, that person needs to go. That hasn’t happened under the current system. And if that person isn’t fired or demoted, the fault would lie squarely on the county executive.
In addition, Baker and his successors could bring all of county government resources to bear on problems in the school system. Schools would no longer have to operate as a standalone entity in county government. It just takes a leap of faith in Baker. Our children’s futures rides on this bet.
Keith Harriston, who lives in Prince George’s County, teaches journalism at Howard University where he edits www.hunewsservice.com.