Say no to Prince George's schools takeover

With its financial woes, low test scores, frequent leadership turnover and underperforming schools, Prince George's County's school system is failing its approximately 125,000 students, and its elected school board appears highly dysfunctional. Under these dire circumstances, it's not surprising that County Executive Rushern L. Baker III wants to intervene.

But what Mr. Baker seeks — direct control over the district's day-to-day operations and authority over its next superintendent — would be unprecedented in Maryland. The carefully constructed wall between public K-12 education and electoral politics would be torn down with potentially troubling, precedent-setting consequences for the state's other school systems.

Making matters worse, the county executive wants the General Assembly to authorize this historic shift of local authority in a matter of two weeks. That unreasonable timetable alone (authorizing legislation was submitted Monday, and the legislature's 90-day session ends April 8) should cause lawmakers to summarily reject it.

Mr. Baker and his allies have portrayed the bill as a local issue pertaining only to Prince George's County. But it's hard to believe that no matter how unique the circumstances of the state's second-largest school system, other county executives won't be watching anxiously to see if they may be able to seek similar authority.

After all, rare is the county executive who has not wanted to assert his or her will over the local school system. County governments (and Baltimore City's) must finance school systems but have limited opportunities to tell them how to spend that money or even hold those systems accountable. The arrangement is the bane of most every top elected official's existence.

Had anyone but Mr. Baker suggested such an accommodation, we seriously doubt it would go far. But as a former delegate and with powerful allies like Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and the clout that comes with managing one of Maryland's largest Democratic strongholds, Mr. Baker might be able to pull this off.

Those who doubted his political acumen last year may have been shocked when he and his allies virtually rewrote Maryland's gambling laws by advocating for a casino with table games at National Harbor. It required a special legislative session and a voter referendum, but Mr. Baker succeeded in both.

That's not to suggest Mr. Baker is engaging in some self-serving power-grab. It would be difficult not to share his frustration with a school system that has seen seven superintendents during the last 14 years. He wants a say in who is hired to be the next one, and we do not blame him. But there are also larger issues at stake.

Our preference would be to negotiate a compromise that would give Mr. Baker a say in who gets the top job (perhaps making it a joint appointment with the school board) but stops short of giving the county executive control of schools. If he wants to pursue this further, Mr. Baker would be better served advocating for new school board members who are sympathetic to his point of view in the next election.

What's a little scary is that Mr. Baker actually wants even more authority than the legislation pending in Annapolis would give him. He would like to have control over the budget, too, and leave the school board with a substantially smaller role. He has called making the superintendent a part of his staff (albeit one confirmed by the county council) a "nonnegotiable" position.

What's to stop some future county executive — one who may not have the interests of schoolchildren in mind — from abusing that authority? Or what if similar authority is granted county executives elsewhere who simply want to shrink school budgets or impose their will on curriculum or divide school resources like spoils to those who elected them? Individual school board members, whether chosen by voters or appointed by the governor, at least can't take such action unilaterally.

Ideally, Prince George's County could find itself a strong, reform-minded CEO like Baltimore has in Andrés Alonso and give that person the latitude to make the tough choices — and the time to see them through. This might be a good time for Maryland Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery to get off the sidelines and help the legislature find a better solution than to invest so much authority into the hands of someone who was never elected to run a single school, let alone a couple of hundred. Turning over an entire school system to a county executive is a precedent that must be avoided if at all possible.

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