The Post’s View

Md. lawmakers should vote now to fix Prince George’s schools

IN A town hall meeting via telephone Tuesday night, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) had a clear and simple message for his constituents: Hold me accountable. He should get his wish.

The county’s school system is not working. Its students lag behind those in the rest of Maryland. It has burned through five superintendents in the last decade, partly because the Board of Education’s unhelpful meddling frustrated talented individuals who should have gotten more support. The system’s reputation is poor, and enrollment is declining. Fewer than half of the board’s nine members graduated from college. The Post’s Ovetta Wiggins and Aaron Davis report that state legislators recently complained to Mr. Baker that board members were unresponsive to parents.

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No simple restructuring can fix all the problems instantly. But given all the trouble with the board, Mr. Baker has proposed to take upon himself the responsibility for improving the system. He wants the county executive, not the board, to appoint the superintendent, who would have wide-ranging authority over personnel, operations and the budget. And he wants the Maryland General Assembly to approve this plan in its current session. It’s a good idea, and there appears to be a fair amount of support for structural reforms among state lawmakers. They should pass a bill now, before the system hires a new superintendent.

Not that the legislative process has been ideal so far. The version of the plan before the Senatediffers from Mr. Baker’s. It would have the school board retain authority over the system’s $1.7 billion budget — more than half of the county’s expenditures — as well as the power to fix salaries and to deal with unions. These changes, lawmakers told The Post, would be more palatable to those unions.

They also dilute the potency of Mr. Baker’s plan. The great appeal of his proposal is that it would establish one point of accountability within the school system — the superintendent and the county executive who appoints her — instead of leaving it in the hands of a nine-member board that has proved itself chronically incapable. If the superintendent can’t bargain with teachers unions or set salaries, the office would lack one of the greatest tools with which to demand progress from educators and administrators.

By splitting crucial authorities between the board and the superintendent, Maryland legislators would make it harder for voters to reasonably punish — or reward — the county executive and his superintendent for the state of the school system. For similar reasons, County Council members are wrong to seek more control over the budget for themselves. Lawmakers should return to Mr. Baker’s original outline.

Still, even the Senate’s version is better than the status quo. One way or another, the Senate and the House of Delegates must pass a bill this session. The children of Prince George’s County deserve action now.

 
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