June 26, 2012

THE FINE SCHOOL superintendent of Prince George’s County is thinking of leaving. Sadly, the question that arises is not why he would go but why he has stayed as long as he has.

Leading any school system is challenging. It’s especially difficult in Prince George’s, where pretty much every politician, from school board member on up, thinks he or she knows what’s best and doesn’t hesitate to interfere.

We hope county officials persuade William R. Hite Jr. not to leave for Philadelphia, where he’s a finalist for a comparable post. But whether he goes or not (Philadelphia is expected to decide within the coming week), the county needs to reexamine how its schools are governed and be prepared to remove the obstacles that impede education reform.

Mr. Hite took over the Prince George’s schools in 2008 after John E. Deasy resigned, and he was formally named superintendent a year later. He has issued a statement calling the Philadelphia job an “opportunity” that must be explored. Philadelphia, the nation’s eighth-largest school district with 22,000 more students than Prince George’s (146,090 vs. 123,800) would present new challenges and more visibility. At the same time, it is apparent that Mr. Hite — much like his predecessor — has wearied of a highly charged political environment that undermines a superintendent.

The superintendent answers to an ever-changing school board, which may have three members under the age of 21 after November’s elections. He also has to field demands from state and county officials. One result is that Mr. Hite is held accountable but lacks full authority. Said one observer: “It’s not who has your back; it’s who is going to stab you in the back.”

Mr. Hite’s possible departure comes amid signs of academic progress. Prince George’s test scores have been rising, and programs to expand educational options have been launched. The improvements are all the more impressive considering the system’s budget cutbacks. Nonetheless, Prince George’s students still woefully underperform, enrollment is declining and the public, despite the progress, lacks confidence in the schools. Those continuing weaknesses recently prompted County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) to name a special commission to advise on ways to improve the schools; the move threatened an already-wary school board, mindful of Mr. Baker’s role as a state legislator in replacing the dysfunctional school board of 2002 with an appointed one.

In conversation with us, Mr. Baker says he wants to play an active role in improving schools, but he stresses that he isn’t interested in taking over the school board. We think that possibility should not be ruled out. County executive control, like mayoral control in the District and New York, would make clear who is calling the shots and who should be held responsible for the outcomes.