Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III took the bold step five years ago of asking state lawmakers to make him responsible for the county’s educational system, convinced that students needed better options and that failing schools were scaring off potential residents and stunting economic growth.
The legislature gave him authority to pick the schools chief and make other key decisions, despite objections from the teachers union and some members of the elected school board, who have criticized his actions since.
“At the end of the day, you are the judge of whether I made the right decision,” Baker told residents in 2013, just weeks after the General Assembly vote.
That day may be coming soon. As Baker makes a run for Maryland governor, his critics are lambasting schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell and highlighting scandals and allegations to counter Baker’s claim that the schools have improved significantly since he took a stepped-up role.
Former national NAACP chief Ben Jealous, one of the other six Democrats competing in the June 26 gubernatorial primary, came to Prince George’s months ago to join an anti-Maxwell rally. The teachers union literally turned its back on Baker. (Dozens of county teachers walked out of a state convention when Baker took the stage, and the state union has since endorsed Jealous.) The local NAACP chapter met with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) asking him to help repeal the five-year-old legislation and give authority back to a fully elected school board. And Hogan, Jealous and the three leading Democratic candidates running to succeed Baker as county executive have called for Maxwell’s ouster.
Although Baker touts increased enrollment, expanded academic offerings and better test scores as proof that the takeover is working, some analysts say the system’s problems could be an albatross that threatens Baker’s political future.
“I think it absolutely is a vulnerability,” said Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary’s College. “He can’t deflect. He made a point of saying, ‘I am going to be the one to fix it.’ ”
With just over eight weeks until the primary, voters are only starting to focus on the crowded field of candidates vying to challenge Hogan, who according to the research group Morning Consult is the nation’s second-most-popular governor.
Baker, who was a state lawmaker before he took the helm of Maryland’s second-largest jurisdiction eight years ago, has ranked at the top of most recent polls, with large swaths of Democratic voters still undecided.
He has dismissed attacks on his school efforts as politics and says the county system continues to face challenges, like others in the state, but has made strides, adding nearly 9,000 students since 2013 after losing more than 1,000 students a year for nearly a decade.
“If you measure academic performance and you measure anything, the school system is in a much better position than it’s probably been in 35 years,” Baker said in an interview. As for recent questions over potentially unauthorized pay raises and other actions by Maxwell, Baker said he is loath to abandon an educational leader who he believes has made significant improvements.
“When something goes wrong you don’t automatically change to the next quarterback,” he said. “You make a judgment call. And that’s what I’ve tried to do, weighing everything in balance. Is it better to bring somebody else in now and start all over again? Or do we continue down this path of progress and make sure that when we do make a change, it’s actually a transition and not an abrupt stop?”
The school system remains one of the lowest-performing in the state, but it has expanded specialty programs, including language immersion, full-day prekindergarten, arts integration and dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credits.
The percentage of eighth-graders who met or exceeded standards on standardized English tests crept from 28 percent in 2015 to 28.8 percent in 2017. The increase was higher for third-graders taking math tests: 18.6 percent met or exceeded standards in 2015, compared with 25.4 percent in 2017.
But in addition to progress, there have been headline-grabbing scandals. In 2016, Deonte Carraway, a 22-year-old elementary school volunteer, was arrested and accused of recording young students committing sex acts, and school officials were criticized for not responding adequately to indications that something was wrong. Months later, the school district lost a $6.4 million federal grant for Head Start after a review found that teachers in the program used corporal punishment and humiliated children and that county school officials failed to address the problem.
And a state probe last year found that grades for nearly 5,500 students were changed between 2015 and 2017, just days before graduation. School officials promised corrective action, and the Maryland State Board of Education assigned a monitor to make sure it happens.
More recently, Maxwell’s critics on the board attacked his decision to give large pay raises to a number of central-office employees, some of which, they say, should have required board approval.
Ron Lester, a Democratic consultant who lives in Prince George’s, said he thinks there is a “small, vocal minority” who have made Maxwell and Baker’s handling of the school system a political issue.
“Turning around a public school system is like turning around a battleship,” Lester said. “Given the resources, all in all they’ve done a good job. Most people would say there has been progress.”
Other observers say Baker could lose votes over the issue — from those who oppose the takeover in Prince George’s, a Democratic stronghold, and elsewhere in the state from those hearing criticism of the district.
“Education is always an issue,” said Bob Ross, the president of the county branch of the NAACP, which also has called for Maxwell to be fired. “People in the county are angry. . . . It falls back on the county executive, because he said the buck stops with him.”
During a campaign stop in Frederick County, Baker recalled in a recent speech, a woman praised the progress Prince George’s has made but then said: “You know the schools. Why don’t you just divorce yourself from that issue?”
He told his audience he responded by saying he ran for office “to make sure everybody, especially in our public schools, gets the same opportunities that I got.”
Dolores Millhouse is a Prince George’s parent who founded My Bilingual Child, which advocates for the language-immersion programs Maxwell has expanded. She supported giving Baker more power over the school system and said that the scrutiny of him and Maxwell is “a political ploy” by those who have always opposed the takeover.
“We need to keep politics out of where they belong — out of our schools,” she said.
Other parents, such as Nicole Nelson — who was not a fan of giving Baker more power — say the criticism of Maxwell’s leadership resonates. Nelson, vice president of the John Hanson Montessori Parent Teacher Student Association, said that she has not decided whom to vote for in the gubernatorial primary but that the problems are on her mind.
“The upside is if we can have someone from Prince George’s, we can get the dollars that we need,” she said, “especially the funding that we need for our schools.”
Baker’s strained relationship with the county teachers union contributed to his inability to win the coveted endorsement from the Maryland State Education Association, which decided overwhelmingly to back Jealous.
Hogan has sparred with the union repeatedly over the years. Should Jealous lose, union officials said, they are likely to endorse whoever wins the Democratic nomination in the general election. But there are concerns about whether any of the other Democrats, including Baker, will be able to get the required support needed to obtain the endorsement.
If Baker wins the primary, Prince George’s schools will be a ripe target for Hogan, who says Baker and Maxwell did not respond adequately to the grade-changing scandal.
The governor told reporters in February that Baker should have fired his schools chief “a long time ago.”
Baker, who has attacked Hogan for scaling back planned funding increases for Prince George’s and other school systems, should have a ready answer, said Democratic strategist Justin Schall, who managed then-Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown’s losing gubernatorial campaign in 2014.
The governor “will say, ‘He took over the schools,’ ” Schall said. “While Baker’s answer will be, ‘You took money from our schools.’ ”