- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2001

Kenneth E. Johnson, chairman of the Prince George's County School Board, threatened to quit the other day. Mr. Johnson, who represents the Mitchellville area, and other county leaders, are throwing political tantrums because state lawmakers are considering legislation that would weaken his and the board's authority over schools.

The Maryland State Board of Education placed the PG school system in the hands of an appointed oversight board last year. The move was necessary because for seven years PG school officials have failed to turn around underperforming schools targeted by the state. The failures have occurred despite increased budgets, management reforms and changes in the elected and appointed leadership. In fact, last week PG parents learned that four additional schools have been placed on the state's list for possible takeover. That list now totals 102 schools, with Baltimore having the highest number (85) and PG holding second place with 15.

The disappointing news, and disagreements between the county's elected school and state authorities, prompted state lawmakers to consider strengthening the already-empaneled oversight board. Specifically, state lawmakers want to grant the panel decision-making and veto powers to help ensure accountability. State officials are on the right track.

Of course, Maryland's overall approach to school reform is not new. Twenty-three states have laws allowing them to take over school districts, and a dozen or so have laws allowing them to take over individual schools. Interestingly, only Maryland and Alabama have actually done so. Maryland is unique in one aspect, though. It is the only state that has turned its underperforming schools over to a for-profit contractor. Jim Watts, vice president of student services for the Southern Regional Education Board, called the Maryland takeovers "the most significant state effort of that type in the nation using a for-profit organization. People are watching to see what happens there in Maryland."

Still, while everyone watches and waits, parents grow more frustrated as they see their children learning less as school budgets eat up more and more of their tax dollars. Right now PG officials are mulling a $1.1 billion school budget, a proposal that is 26 percent higher than the current school year and is more than two-thirds of the county's overall budget proposal. That is simply unconscionable when you consider what return taxpayers are getting on their investment.

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