Prince George's meltdown

Schools: State and local officials must seize the chance to remake the system, not dabble in change.

February 06, 2002

THE NEAR- clownish incompetence of the Prince George's County school board has finally compelled the state to intervene. But it will take more than an oversight panel to deal with the quickening deterioration of one of the state's worst school districts.

State and Prince George's officials need to embrace a total makeover of the system, a baby-and-bath-water purge akin to what was done in Baltimore in 1997.

The school board clearly must go. Superintendent Iris T. Metts may also need to move on. And new leaders (culled from among the county's best and brightest) must be found to embark on reforms that address fiscal as well as academic deficiencies.

That's drastic action, to be sure. But Baltimore provides a precedent with decent results. There is no more goofy, politically distracted school board here, no chief making policy by the seat of his or her pants. Test scores are on the rise. Fiscal mismanagement is becoming a thing of the past.

Repeating that effort in Prince George's may require considerable political cooperation in Annapolis and creative thinking by state education officials. But what's the alternative? Watching the system implode serves no one.

The Prince George's situation boiled over last weekend when the board capped its two-year battle for top-dog status with Ms. Metts by firing her. None of the issues in this fight really has to do with education, of course. It's about power -- and who has the most.

We had high hopes for Ms. Metts when she arrived 2 1/2 years ago, and she had some early victories. But she may be too tainted by the ongoing board battle to continue as the district's leader. And, perhaps more important, it's clear she hasn't turned performance around. All of the system's academic indicators point to impending catastrophe (the schools are riding a three-year MSPAP slide), and state officials have lost patience with the system's ineptitude. An oversight panel was appointed in 1999 to help resolve some of the problems.

A Baltimore-style reform seems to make the most sense here. The question may be one of political will to do it.

For years, Prince George's has been able to avoid much of the state intervention in its schools that other jurisdictions (and Baltimore in particular) have endured.

Even though many of its schools post chronically low MSPAP scores, very few have made their way onto the state's watch list or faced the threat of reconstitution. And even as Baltimore endured a near state takeover of its schools, Prince George's was barely discussed.

Politics clearly played a role in the system's charmed existence, and Parris N. Glendening's occupancy of the governor's mansion may have helped protect the county. Already, proposals are floating around for only moderate intervention in Prince George's.

That won't do this time. State and local officials should insist on a housecleaning and a commitment to start over. That's the only logical course in a system whose problems are so long-standing. It's the only thing that will bring the dramatic and important change being experienced by Baltimore children now.

State and local leaders cannot afford to bypass this chance to solve Prince George's problems once and for all.

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