Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: Competition, not takeover, is key to turnaround at Prince George's County schools

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Opinion,Local Editorial

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is justifiably frustrated that the second-largest public school system in Maryland in the nation's wealthiest minority-majority county consistently ranks at the bottom of the state in student achievement. Despite spending $1.7 billion annually to educate 123,000 students and going through five superintendents in 10 years, 41 percent of Prince George's County Public Schools are still in need of improvement, according to state officials.

Baker is right that the status quo is unacceptable, but he has picked the wrong solution to the problem.

The county executive wants the General Assembly to give him virtually complete operational control of PGCPS, including salary negotiations, school consolidations and boundary changes, with the new superintendent reporting directly to him. The elected Board of Education would be left with diminished responsibilities, primarily setting academic policy. Bloggers are calling it a school coup d'etat.

But a decade ago, when he was a state delegate, Baker successfully lobbied to replace another elected school board with political appointees, who then hired Andre Hornsby as superintendent. In 2008, Hornsby was convicted of giving kickbacks on school contracts to his live-in girlfriend. So Baker's judgment, if not his motive, is already suspect.

Baker points to school takeovers in other cities such as the District, where in 2007 legislation gave former Mayor Adrian Fenty control over the city's failing public schools. But six years later, it's clear that the mayoral takeover had less effect on improving public education than the introduction of competition in the form of school choice.

Vouchers and charter schools not only raised parental expectations, they forced DC Public Schools to compete -- especially east of the Anacostia River, where a majority of children come from low-income families.

Prince George's has seven charter schools, but it needs many more. Maryland's 2003 charter law does not limit the number of charter schools a county can have. That's done by local boards of education. They are authorized to act as primary chartering authorities, with the state board as a secondary authorizer in case of an appeal or if a school requires restructuring. The flaw in the law is that it gives local school boards veto power over their own competition.

If Baker wants a change in state law to force changes in public education, the charter law is the place to begin.

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