April 2, 2013

PRINCE GEORGE’S County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is being faulted for his timing in trying to assume responsibility for the county’s public schools; he proposed the reform relatively late in the General Assembly session. But unlike critics who say he’s rushing the move, we think Mr. Baker has been too patient with the status quo. So it’s encouraging that the county’s Senate delegation felt a sufficient sense of urgency to schedule a vote for Wednesday on a reform plan. Less encouraging is a report that the bill to be considered will contain more compromises to an already watered-down version of Mr. Baker’s proposal.

His plan was simple: Put him, not the school board, in charge of the school superintendent and the system’s $1.7 billion budget and hold him accountable for the results. The Senate bill would have the school board retain budget authority and, according to The Post’s Ovetta Wiggins, will likely be diluted even more. Amendments being circulated would allow Mr. Baker to name the superintendent from a group of candidates nominated by a commission selected by him, the governor and the state education superintendent. The county superintendent would not report to Mr. Baker, but the county executive would be able to appoint the chair and vice-chair of the school board. Elected school board members would remain as part of a larger, hybrid board that would require a two-thirds majority to countermand the superintendent’s actions.

Mr. Baker, while still pushing for his original proposal, is agreeable to these changes if they are the best he can get. He told us he believes that he would still have sufficient standing with the superintendent and board to steer change. We have serious doubts: The beauty of the original plan, modeled after successful reforms in Boston and New York, is that it streamlines authority and creates an executive who ultimately is accountable for the system. Why diffuse that accountability? Why bend over backward to preserve the authority of a school board that has proven so feckless? The thought of a larger and potentially more dysfunctional school board, on which there are sure to be members disgruntled by the authority given to Mr. Baker, gives us pause.

What’s most disturbing about the changes is that they aren’t the result of thoughtful deliberation about what have proved to be the nation’s best practices or what would best work for Prince George’s. They are the result of lobbying by unions, fear among legislators of setting a statewide precedent and a small-minded desire to deny Mr. Baker everything he sought. Mr. Baker may be correct that anything that gives the county executive more of a role in education is a step in the right direction. But the children and parents of Prince George’s shouldn’t be the ones who have to compromise. Lawmakers ought to return to Mr. Baker’s original proposal.