MARYLAND HAS 24 school districts, of which the one in Prince George’s County — by some measures the wealthiest and most successful majority-black county in America — is second to last in graduation rates, ahead only of Baltimore City, and among the state’s lowest-performing systems by other measures. That’s a blot on the reputation of Prince George’s, a disservice to its 125,000 students and an almost insurmountable obstacle in the county’s efforts to compete regionally for good jobs and amenities.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is proposing to tackle the problem with a major property tax increase — the first since the 1970s. Most of the county’s elected officials say they want to improve public education, but they quail at the idea of finding funds to do so. Mr. Baker’s proposal would provide a major cash infusion that he says would lift the schools into the state’s top 10 by 2020. Why not let him try?
The all-Democratic County Council, which must set the tax rate by June 1, has been tepid to hostile to Mr. Baker’s plan, which would increase residential property taxes by slightly more than 15 percent. Council members argue, by turns, that Mr. Baker has failed to make a convincing case, that no one trusts the schools to use the money effectively and that residents on fixed incomes can’t afford higher taxes or even the rising property values that better schools would likely produce.
Granted, county schools have a checkered history, having been led by eight superintendents in the past 14 years, including one who was sentenced to prison for corruption. Many residents of Prince George’s, which has grappled with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the region, are still struggling to make ends meet. Elderly people with no children in public schools have been particularly critical of Mr. Baker’s blueprint at public hearings.
Yet almost no one believes the schools are in good shape or that doing nothing is acceptable. So rather than rejecting Mr. Baker’s plan, a number of council members are proposing to water it down. In a similar vein, the Chamber of Commerce suggested giving Mr. Baker half a loaf, almost literally: a property tax increase of 7.8 percent.
That is evidence of how dramatically Mr. Baker has shifted the debate in Prince George’s, where property tax increases have been regarded as off the table for many years. Slowly but surely, many officials are acknowledging that furrowing their brows about the schools’ inadequacies, as candidates habitually do at election time, does not amount to a strategic plan.
Still, not everyone has gotten the message. A good example is council member Obie Patterson (Fort Washington), who has been vehement in opposing Mr. Baker’s proposal. Mr. Patterson, nonsensically accusing Mr. Baker of pursuing a “backdoor” method of improving schools, insisted that “there are other ways to find funding, and hopefully they will find them.”
With that preposterous statement, Mr. Patterson inadvertently undercut his own case and exposed the main shortcoming of Mr. Baker’s critics: They don’t have a better idea.