“Taking over a mess has all the risks of dealing with the bureaucracy, the finances and the expectations,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a political consultant who advised Fenty. “But you’re never going to get anywhere without it.”
Baker risks alienating supporters who remember him saying during the 2010 campaign that he would not take over the schools, a statement he repeated in July after he formed an education commission.
“You don’t have to wonder where I’m coming from,” he said then. “If I thought the governance was the way to go, I’d say that.”
Donna Hathaway Beck, a Prince George’s school board member, supported Baker in three elections. But she said he has now lost her support with his takeover bid — one that he launched with less than three weeks left in the legislative season, leaving little time for a full public debate.
“This is Rushern making a power play,” she said. “I think it was inappropriate for Rushern to step into this after his campaign platform said he wouldn’t. I’ve learned that Rushern doesn’t really struggle with changing positions.”
“This is about trust, and I don’t trust him now,” she said.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), an ally of Baker’s who was a key architect of the takeover plan, acknowledged that “some people will be concerned about a power grab.”
“But I don’t hear a lot of people coming to the defense of the Board of Education,” he said. “Most people want good schools, and they don’t care how we get there.”
From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, mayors since the early 1990s have taken control over school systems. The goal, said Kenneth Wong, a Brown University education professor, has been to unify political terrain often rife with competing interests.
“You lose sight of the priorities,” Wong said. By centralizing authority, “one office is ultimately accountable so that parents and taxpayers know who to talk to. You have coherence.”
In cities including New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and New Haven, Conn., he said, test scores improved. But Stefanie Chambers, a political science professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., said they’re not at the levels of suburban districts. “I’m very concerned about saying that we see great progress,” she said.
In Prince George’s, a voter-imposed cap on property-tax revenue makes funding the schools all the more challenging. In the past decade, student enrollment has slipped from 134,000 to 123,000, as families have left the county or chosen to send their children to parochial and private schools.