Josh Kurtz: Fools Rushern In

By Josh Kurtz

Say this for Rushern Baker: He has perfected the art of the last-minute legislative bombshell.

But compared to his desire to wrest control of the struggling Prince George’s County school system from the elected Board of Education, last year’s 11th-hour push to bring casino gambling to National Harbor suddenly seems like child’s play. At least then he had big-moneyed interests and the powerful state Senate president enthusiastically in his corner.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Baker this time stands utterly alone. But elected officials, save for dependable allies like state Sen. Paul Pinsky, seem stunned at the moment, weighing both the plan itself — which remains unformed, at best — and the implications to their own hides. Only Baker’s “amen” corner at The Washington Post is all-in — a decidedly mixed blessing in Prince George’s political circles.

Baker and Annapolis lawmakers had better get it right: Nothing less than the fate of 123,000 public school students is at stake.

But so, too, is the fate of their parents and their communities, of the hard-working men and women who are teachers and administrators and aides in the Prince George’s school system, and of the county itself — and Baker’s ongoing and estimable campaign to buff up its still-battered image. (Disclosure: my wife is an elementary school ESOL teacher in Prince George’s.)

Forget for a moment the yips of school board members; nobody willingly cedes power. And forget also the short-term and long-lasting local political implications, which are many.

More global questions need to be asked and considered: Would the whole idea of a Prince George’s executive taking over the county schools be getting any traction at all if someone other than Baker had the job? What if the school system and the school board were functioning fairly well, but were at odds with a power-hungry county executive? And does reform, in Baker’s view, mean Michelle Rhee — figuratively if not literally?

Baker has said it’s all about “accountability.” And in a county where too few local leaders have been willing to be held accountable for the school system’s failings, Baker’s desire to be judged by the schools’ performance is laudable.

But “accountability” is a loaded word in public education these days. Whatever is envisioned and articulated by the avatars of the accountability movement, Rhee and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, accountability as a practical matter means more testing for kids, more teaching to the test, more paperwork for teachers, and far less creativity in the classroom.

Teaching reading and math is paramount, make no mistake. But suppose your child was only truly engaged during art class; suppose music or athletics were her salvation. Kids are getting far fewer electives in school these days. So if kids are struggling with math and reading, if there’s no outlet for their creativity or opportunities for success in classes beyond the core curriculum, then the school day becomes an endless succession of failure and misery.

But that’s the system that “No Child Left Behind” has brought us, that Duncan and Rhee are so gung-ho about in the name of accountability. Is that what Rushern Baker wants?

Duncan and Rhee, with three years of classroom teaching between them (three for her, none for him) are like the prom king and queen of Education World — he, long and lithe in his trim suits, she, looking good on the cover of Time magazine. It’s appealing on the surface — and what‘s more exciting in education than self-styled reformers?

But what do they know about life in the classroom, really? As everyone who suffered through high school knows, even prom kings and queens have their faults. With Rhee, there’s the messianic nature of her rhetoric and performance in Washington, D.C. — she may have been born on Christmas Day, but she’s no savior. And then there’s her reflexive desire to bully the teachers’ unions — which seems to be the principal thing that has captured the media’s attention and earned the praise of so many politicians.

Is that a vision that Baker wants to be identified with? For what it’s worth, in Prince George’s, the teachers’ union doesn’t have nearly the political juice of its statewide counterpart – or of teachers’ unions in many other Maryland jurisdictions.

Baker has accomplished a lot in his two-plus years in office. He took over under trying circumstances, to say the least, and inherited more problems, internally and externally, from Jack Johnson than anyone can even imagine. He has shown surprising drive and toughness, without losing the compassion, smarts and social graces that made him so appealing to begin with.

There are still sinister forces out there, some affiliated with Johnson, who wouldn’t mind seeing Baker fall on his face — and some are actually still maneuvering to make it happen. So it’s hard not to root for the guy.

But imagine if it was Johnson seeking to shake up the county’s education system. Would the idea seem so terrific then? There’s almost universal agreement today that the Prince George’s schools are not up to par. But suppose the opinion wasn’t so unanimous?

A lot of powerful people in Annapolis, and a lot of thought leaders, have come to trust Baker. But he’s only guaranteed to be at the helm in Prince George’s until late 2014 — late 2018 if he’s re-elected. Who knows what will come next? Do policymakers really want to put so much power in the hands of one individual? What self-respecting school administrator is going to want to come to town and be superintendent amid so much uncertainty?

Rushern Baker is a good man who in most cases has earned the benefit of the doubt. But this seems like a rare exception. Until he can fully articulate his vision for reform, it may be best to pull the brake on what, for now, looks like a runaway train.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

A Sense of the Senate

Montgomery Councilmember Seeks Investigation Into Anonymous Web Attack

Peter Principle

Louie, Louie

Inside Out, Outside In?