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Galvanizing Prince George’s schools

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THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS in Prince George’s County are in trouble. Despite gains in test scores, student performance continues to lag that of other local, suburban school systems. About 1,000 students per year, on average, have been leaving, some because of shifting demographics, others because of the schools’ poor reputation. That has shrunk the system by more than 5 percent since 2006 (to about 125,000 students), even as the county’s population has grown. Meanwhile, the numbers of students from low-income and immigrant households are climbing.

Since he took office two years ago, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has made the schools a top priority, in line with the wishes of many county residents. He’s increased the school budget even as student enrollment has declined and formed an education commission to generate ideas for innovation. Those are sensible steps.

Yet Mr. Baker has no direct authority and little leverage over the schools. Two highly regarded school superintendents have left in the past four years and now hold the top jobs in the Los Angeles and Philadelphia school systems. Clearly something is wrong.

As in any large organization grappling with dysfunction, one place to look is at the top — namely, the Board of Education. As elsewhere, an elected school board controls Prince George’s schools. And it’s been part of the problem.

The two recent superintendents, William R. Hite Jr. and John E. Deasy, left in part because they were exasperated with the board, the quality of some members and their tendency to meddle. Last year, many county residents were embarrassed when The Post reported that just two of the board’s then eight members held bachelor’s degrees — this in a job whose responsibilities include setting policies to prepare students for college.

The board seems to have improved somewhat since last fall’s elections, at least on paper; four of its nine members are now college graduates. Still, that’s a departure from all other school boards in the region, where voters regard graduating from a four-year college a minimum qualification.

In Annapolis, Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, a Prince George’s Democrat, has proposed legislation that would create a task force to examine ways to improve the board, including members’ composition and qualifications. This has prompted groans, particularly from the school board, which opposes it. In the past decade the board has been repeatedly reconfigured — as an appointive body and as one composed of members elected first at large, then by district.

One appealing (to us) alternative would be for Mr. Baker himself to take control of the schools, as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty did in the District in 2007. That’s not likely to happen. Still, a dramatic shake-up is in order.

The school board, with Mr. Baker’s input, is now searching for a superintendent to take the reins by summer. Once that happens, Mr. Baker should take the lead in raising the issue of the school system’s governance; perhaps a panel of outside experts could shake things up with a top-to-bottom review. What’s clear is that doing more of the same is unacceptable.

More on this debate: The Post’s View: Choices for Prince George’s school board The Post’s View: A setback for Prince George’s schools The Post’s View: Prince George’s faces an education reality check The Post’s View: Progress in Prince George’s

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