MoCo parents, officials eye new fed education policy nervously

"Anxiety over the harm that Donald Trump and his public school scorning Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might do to Montgomery County’s vaunted education system was palpable" at a recent public meeting on MCPS's future, Hal Ginsberg reports.

/By Hal Ginsberg/ Every seat in Northwest High School’s cafeteria in Germantown was filled Wednesday night [Feb. 15].  Anxiety over the harm that Donald Trump and his public school scorning Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might do to Montgomery County’s vaunted education system was palpable.  For nearly three hours, Montgomery County Councilman Craig Rice, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jack Smith, and Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard first spoke to then answered a multitude of questions from nervous parents, teachers, and concerned County residents.  Rice, who served as moderator, and the two educators are scheduled to engage county residents at four more Education Budget Forums through the end of March.

 During the introductory portion of the evening Rice, Smith, and Pollard addressed the audience in turn.  Each expressed a strong commitment to public education.  Councilman Rice’s comments were the most personal as he described his mother’s experiences as a teacher and his high school years at Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring.  His emphasis was on how a good primary and secondary education can serve as a springboard out of poverty.  He also described the teenage jobs program that he and Superintendent Smith are introducing to help high schoolers get an income and the experience they will need when they are adults to compete in a crowded job market.

 Superintendent Smith discussed the great difficulties teachers face and how he is trying to reduce amount of time teachers have to devote to paperwork and other administrative tasks that take them away from their primary mission of educating students.  He announced that MCPS will no longer charge students a fee for participating in after-school activities. 

 Previously, students on sports teams or who participated in other after school activities had to pay $32.50 to cover the additional costs of maintaining facilities and transportation.  Although students could request a waiver based on economic hardship, Smith said he wanted to spare needy students the potential shame and embarrassment that accompany such requests.  He also mentioned that MCPS recoups a relatively paltry amount from the charge.

 President Pollard, like Rice, focused on the role that a good education plays in helping poor and working-class children to achieve a middle-class life.  She discussed recent Montgomery College success stories.  But she then remarked that even at relatively inexpensive community colleges, rising tuition is becoming a significant burden on students from less affluent families and prevents others from enrolling.

 After their introductory remarks, Councilman Rice requested questions from a very eager audience.  Despite the fact that the meeting ran 30 minutes past its scheduled end time of 8:30, many with raised hands did not get an opportunity to address the panel.

 One of the first parents to speak addressed the elephant in the room when she asked about the likely impact Betsy DeVos will have on MCPS.  The response from Superintendent Smith was not encouraging.  He stated that his biggest fear was not DeVos per se but rather that the Republican Congress and the President will divert Title 1 funds to DeVos’s preferred charter schools.  The federal Title I Programs Department distributes money to schools with a high number or a high percentage of children from low-income families.

 Another parent asked about the performance gap between white students and students of color.  Councilman Rice opined that Montgomery County needs universal pre-K.  He explained that his child, who attended pre-K, had an advantage over kids whose first experience in school was as kindergartners.  The educators noted that Montgomery County’s children of color suffered disproportionately from poverty.

 Smith noted that MCPS stands to lose tens of millions of needed dollars if Congress follows through with this plan.  Rice added that Montgomery County does not need charter schools.  He pointed out that the District of Columbia has had at best a mixed record with them and that they cost taxpayers more than public schools while delivering a poorer education.

 When questioned about the need for anti-poverty programs to help bridge the achievement gap and to ease the burden on teachers who face added challenges when teaching underprivileged children, Councilman Rice admitted that he did not support the $15 minimum wage bill that County Executive Isiah Leggett recently vetoed.  Rice did, however, agree that poverty is an education issue.  He also expressed support for programs to help the County’s low-income residents.  Specifically, Rice acknowledged the need for more affordable housing, better and cheaper public transportation, energy subsidies for low-income residents, and inexpensive healthcare.

 Several teachers lamented burdensome testing requirements.  Superintendent Smith agreed that the various achievement tests designed to monitor a school’s performance are counter-productive.  He promised that his administration is now devoting time and energy to find ways to free up teachers to teach kids.  But he also blamed Federal and state requirements for many of the tests.

 This writer’s takeaway from the forum was that Councilman Rice, Superintendent Smith, and President Pollard are committed to educating Montgomery County’s primary and secondary public school students and community college enrollees.  But they are also confronting tough challenges stemming from poverty and a federal government that is hostile to public schools.  For MCPS children, teachers, and parents, the next few years are likely to be difficult.


Hal Ginsberg, a regular blogger for Progressive Maryland’s BlogSpace, also blogs at halginsberg.com