Prince George’s County executive candidate Rushern Baker used a personal anecdote to illustrate his family’s commitment to public education July 17 at a “Women to Elect Baker” luncheon in Fort Washington.

Baker, an attorney and former Maryland state delegate, spoke of a time when one of his three children was struggling in school, in part because of poor teachers. Frustrated, his first instinct was to use his office to get her transferred.
“My wife said no,” he said. “You’re not going to have anything for your children that anybody else without your position couldn’t have.”

Baker said he and his wife, Christa, eventually got academic help for their daughter and then demanded the same resources go to 15 other children who were also struggling.

The story drew spirited applause from the 35 to 40 women who gathered at Proud Mary Restaurant at the Fort Washington Marina.

The luncheon opened with a hand-clapping gospel song, followed by a prayer, a few introductions and Baker’s 10-minute address.

Baker is one of five candidates – all Democrats – vying to replace term-limited County Executive Jack B. Johnson in the Nov. 2 elections. The others are Prince George’s County Sheriff Michael Jackson, businessman Henry Turner, state Del. Gerron Levi and District 6 County Councilman Sam Dean. Baker lost the county executive race in 2002 and 2006.

Education is a central topic in a county where state assessment scores are improving, but still lagging behind neighboring counties. In the 2009 tests, 67.3 percent of Prince George’s County eighth-graders showed proficiency in reading and 43.2 percent showed proficiency in math. Those numbers were 87.4 percent (reading) and 74.4 percent (math) in Montgomery County.

Baker said there was no reason for Prince George’s to be “at the bottom” in education. That message resonated with Juanita Tutt of Fort Washington. Tutt’s two children went to Prince George’s County schools in the 1970s and ’80s and then went on to college.

“I’m not saying the school system was perfect then, but it was better, I think, at that time,” Tutt said. “We’re having such a time now with our kids and obesity, and they don’t have gym class. They don’t have music or all the things that we had.”

Baker’s prepared remarks were short on specifics. Afterward, he said he’d focus on recruiting and retaining good teachers and establishing a “Middle College” program that would allow students to start learning a trade in ninth grade and graduate high school with an associate’s degree.

Baker stood by his campaign pledge to not lay off or furlough any teachers or public safety workers if elected, arguing that the long-term costs outweigh any short-term benefit. He said his experience as a state delegate, which included a stint on the Appropriations Committee, would enable him to procure state education dollars to help fund his initiatives.

“We’ve relied on property taxes for far too long,” Baker said. “We’re taxed out. It’s really about pulling the resources from Annapolis and bringing them back to the county.”

Levi, reached by phone, said that Baker had no new ideas on education and had been overselling his statehouse connections throughout the campaign.”I’ve heard Mr. Baker over several debates and it seems like many of his solutions focus on Annapolis,” Levi said. “It might be that he needs to run for another position in Annapolis. … Annapolis is a critical part of our solutions, but we must also bring some vision and some out-of-the-box thinking to these issues.”

Levi said she had a community-based plan to improve education that focused on cutting suspensions, reducing absenteeism by half and pushing students who were already “proficient” on the state assessments to the “advanced” level.