March 29, 2013

In deciding how to restructure the Prince George’s County Public Schools, several important questions must be considered: What is best for children, and how do we achieve that? What successful, results-oriented, best-practices systems can we emulate? And, once a direction has been decided, how do we carry out changes to achieve the success we want?

But we can’t answer any of these questions without also asking: Are we setting a good example for our children as we work through these issues?

This month, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) launched a last-minute, backdoor attempt to seize control of the school system. He has asked the Maryland General Assembly to cut out the elected school board by placing the schools superintendent in his cabinet, tripling the number of employees under Baker’s supervision and giving him control of the system’s $1.7 billion budget. Imagine the surprise of administrators, teachers, parents and taxpayers who were blindsided by this plan.

Baker is a former state delegate, and he well knows General Assembly procedures. He is fully aware that this legislative attempt breaks all the rules. The proposal will move forward — with the assistance of others we elected in Prince George’s — not by following the rules but by political trickery.

The General Assembly convened Jan. 9 and adjourns April 8. The last day to introduce a bill under regular rules was more than a month ago. The last day to introduce a late bill without suspension of the rules was more than three weeks ago. All bills are supposed to receive a hearing in both the House and Senate, but there’s no time for that now. Have we already moved so far away from the Baker administration’s announced principles of “ethics and trust,” “evidence-based decisions” and “communication, teamwork and collaboration”? Democracy requires advance notice, public hearings and regular deadlines as a safeguard against flawed legislation.

Why the secrecy and surprise? By any reasonable standard, this plan should have been publicly disclosed and the bill properly introduced when the session opened in January. If Baker believed it was important to take over the schools at the beginning of this year, why did he delay so long? If he didn’t believe it was important then, what has changed in two months so that he has to break all the rules to get what he wants?

I don’t doubt the county executive’s sincerity, but what he’s doing is not democratic leadership, and it makes no sense. Tellingly, Baker has not articulated what he would do with the schools that is different from what the school board has done. Takeover is not the same as change that is right for our children. Last year, Philadelphia hired away Prince Georges’s Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. in part because of what was being accomplished in our county’s schools. Across the nation, the kind of executive takeover Baker seeks has led to closed schools, fired teachers, increased testing and the loss of public-education funding to charter schools that turn out to be different from public schools but not necessarily better (see the District of Columbia and former mayor Adrian Fenty). How could this change be right for our children?

What should we do now? Not this. It is simply too late in the General Assembly session to establish a meaningful process of reviewing all the school governance issues raised by this plan, in a way that includes input from all stakeholders. If we care about our children, and our $1.7 billion investment in public education says we do, we will stop this ill-conceived legislation now. It is a Fenty-like, undemocratic mess bound to pit parent against parent, teacher against teacher and elected official against elected official. Instead, we should come together, study, debate and arrive at real solutions that build and drive a culture of academic success.

That may take time, but it’s how real democracy works.

The writer is president of the Prince George’s County NAACP.