Monday, August 15, 2022

County exec gets key support in school takeover bid

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Rushern L Baker III, the county executive for Prince George’s County, Md., would like more authority and responsibility in running the county’s 204 schools, and he got a key vote of support Wednesday from the county’s delegation in the state Senate, the Washington Post reports.

A bill that would give him the authority to select the school system’s next superintendent and appoint members to a newly configured school board is making its way through the Senate. Seven of the eight senators from Prince George’s County voted to support the bill Wednesday, meaning the bill is expected to pass. (State lawmakers usually follow the vote of a county’s delegation on matters that are considered local. Since the bill would only affect Prince George’s County directly, the support of the county’s delegation bodes well for its eventual passage late in the session in both houses.)

The bill doesn’t give Mr Baker as much authority as he wanted, but he expressed his satisfaction with the compromise bill that is now in the Senate.

A word about motivation

There is general agreement that Prince George’s County has a troubled school system. The superintendent’s office has a revolving door, five administrators having come and gone in the last decade, and the school board has censured its own members on a few occasions. Performance on standardized tests has been poor in many of the district’s schools and classrooms.

Given the host of problems identified in the system and the huge role the school system’s success plays in overall county success, Mr Baker believes there should be one central point of responsibility and accountability instead of everyone passing the buck all the time. He said he would be willing to accept that responsibility as the county executive.

Other large school systems nationwide have come to similar conclusions, putting authority in mayors or CEOs. For example, in Washington, D.C., former Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the school system and hired Michelle Rhee as superintendent in 2007. She immediately started “fixing” the troubled schools, but her results are now seen as a failure by most educators.

The motive was the same, though, in Washington back then as it is now in Prince George’s County: Accept responsibility for whatever happens, good or bad, as long as the top administrator has the authority to make things happen.

The benefits of executive control over the schools

What this bill gives Mr Baker is the authority to move administrators around and appoint members to a school board that was entirely elected before the change. So far, nobody has said anything about how a single classroom in Prince George’s County will change as a result of any new laws enacted.

However, Mr Baker hasn’t chosen a new superintendent yet, and that’s when any changes that affect actual classrooms will become clearer.

For the moment, we’re only talking about changes to the governance structure of the public schools in Prince George’s County. As such, if elementary students learn math, reading, science, social studies, and so on, it doesn’t really matter who’s at the helm. Standardized tests say students in Prince George’s County aren’t learning core subjects at an acceptable level, so change is needed.

Some people, including teachers’ unions, expressed concern that this bill might establish a precedent in the state, leading other school districts to do something similar. I don’t think that’s a real threat, though, since if districts want examples, they can be found in American schools over the last decade or so. This law, therefore, seems redundant at worst in terms of establishing any precedent.

The drawbacks of executive control

Ordinarily, citizens in a democracy elect officials to run the various aspects of government. For example, we elect senators and representatives to ensure that the legislative process is one we would like to see carried out. We elect school boards, in most US districts, to ensure the schools are run properly and our money is managed appropriately given the educational objectives of the public schools.

Although the change is not likely to have a direct impact on classroom instruction, which is all we really care about, the change will circumvent the democratic process a little. Right now, citizens in the county can vote school board members out as soon as their terms expire. If a board member is good, on the other hand, people have the option of voting him or her back on the board for another term.

Now, if the county executive has the authority to appoint board members, as proposed in this legislation, the appointment of certain members or even a new superintendent may be motivated by political agendas that have nothing to do with the schools. In other words, we’re introducing the possibility of putting something above a good education for our public school students.

Not only is it wrong to use any criteria other than students’ educational objectives in operating a school system, but the use of executive appointments could open the door to more frequent changes on the board and in the superintendent’s office than Prince George’s County has now. We certainly don’t want to make the problem worse, but such a change could happen if a superintendent or appointed board member falls out of favor with the county executive.

Paul Katulahttps://news.schoolsdo.org
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

1 COMMENT

  1. Moving quickly, the bill was approved by the House of Delegates Saturday and now heads to the governor’s desk, NBC Washington reports. If signed, the law would take effect on June 1.

    All three finalists for the vacant superintendent’s position have withdrawn their names from consideration.

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