Are Montgomery County Public Schools Still the Best?

Overcrowding and competing priorities pose serious challenges for school system



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Photo from iStock

One day this past spring, a biomedical class at Wheaton High School was conducting a virtual autopsy, searching for clues on what killed a hypothetical patient. Earlier in the semester, an engineering class built a robot that could perform rudimentary tasks around the building. The students in both classes are part of the school’s showcase program in project-based learning, which is intended to encourage the type of problem-solving collaboration that’s increasingly required in the modern workplace.  

A floor below where the virtual autopsy was taking place, Megan Fischer was teaching English and other basic skills to recent arrivals from Central and South America, some in their late teens. Fischer’s class included students who had traveled to this country alone to be reunited with parents they hadn’t seen in a decade or more. “That’s a challenge in and of itself, in addition to adjusting to a new language,” Fischer says. “Several of them also come not knowing how to even read or write in their first language.”

Next to a modest residential neighborhood a couple of blocks from the busy intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Randolph Road, the new Wheaton High School opened in January, replacing a 62-year-old building just up the street. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) officials speak glowingly about the environmentally-friendly structure, with its wide hallways and large classrooms.

Based on 2015-2016 enrollment figures, just over half of the approximately 1,550 students who attend Wheaton are Hispanic-American; nearly half rely on the federal free and reduced price meals program, widely referred to as FARMS; and nearly one-fifth are enrolled in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.

The new building, which took five years to design and construct, was filled to capacity just months after opening. As for the 2016-2017 school year, Wheaton Principal Debra Mugge says, “We’re looking at ‘where are we going to put everybody?’ We’re going to be bursting at the seams.”

With its diverse student population, skyrocketing enrollment and glistening new building, Wheaton is emblematic of the significant challenges and big-picture questions facing MCPS and its new superintendent, Jack Smith, who took office on July 1. Even Wheaton’s highly touted project-based learning program—an initiative of former Superintendent of Schools Joshua Starr—figures into the issues confronting MCPS.

The biomedical and engineering “magnet” programs at Wheaton contain about 200 students who had to apply and take tests to be accepted. A report released just four months before Smith took office raises questions about the fairness of magnet programs throughout the county, which draw a disproportionate number of white and Asian-American students. As the nation’s 17th largest school system continues to grow more diverse, the report has triggered a sometimes uncomfortable and contentious debate over race and equity.

* * *

The school system has long been seen as Montgomery County’s biggest draw. But in a move that bespoke a concern about making sure things remain that way, the Montgomery County Council this spring unanimously approved an 8.7 percent increase in the average residential property tax bill for the fiscal year that began July 1. The “Education First” budget marked the first large spending increase for the schools since the Great Recession descended eight years ago—despite the political heat generated by a major tax increase.

“From my perspective, we were so far ahead that we still remain the crown jewel. I’m not just talking about regionally, I’m talking about nationally,” says Councilmember Craig Rice, chair of the panel’s education committee. But Rice, a graduate of the MCPS system, adds, “Have we lost ground? We certainly have, and that’s why we invested the money that we did. And that’s why it will be important for Jack [Smith] to lay out a vision for how we continue to keep ourselves as leaders.”


The new Wheaton High School took five years to design and build. It opened in January, and is already filled to capacity. Photo by Barbara Salisbury

It won’t be by imposing more tax hikes. Few on or off the council expect the size of this year’s increase to be repeated in the near future. Nor is there an expectation of a return to the happy days of prerecession years, when annual growth in income and property values yielded large increases in county revenues with little political pain.

What does this foreshadow? An increasing competition for limited resources between the growing number of low-income areas of the county—where concern about the longstanding “achievement gap” separating white students and their African-American and Latino counterparts is intensifying—and the more affluent sections, where anxiety about school overcrowding brought about by new development is mounting.

Much of the money coming from the tax increase will be aimed at schools in communities on the lower end of the county’s socioeconomic spectrum. The school system does not break down per-student spending in a so-called “focus school” in a less affluent area of the county. But, in a budget presentation that Starr made to the school board at the end of 2013, he estimated that a focus elementary school required about $8.6 million in annual funding, compared with $6.7 million for the average elementary school, a difference of more than 28 percent.

“I believe we have entered a new era, where the needs of those who are affected by poverty have grown considerably, and the communities of color are basically becoming the mainstream in terms of the student population,” says Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, a former school board member and the highest profile elected official of Latino descent in the county.

Rice, the council’s only African-American member, refers to these issues as “the equity conversation,” which he defines as “saying to one group, ‘I can’t give it to everybody, and [somebody else] needs it more.’ ” As he bluntly puts it, “When it comes to allocating resources to the poor, we say, ‘Yeah.’ But when it comes to the schools, who educate the children of the poor, we say, ‘No, no, no, wait a minute, why does that kid get more than my kid does?’”

Others, however, warn of long-term costs—specifically, an erosion of the “crown jewel” perception among prospective residents—if issues that are important to other portions of the school population are not addressed. Seated in a coffee shop not far from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School, where enrollment is at capacity and increasing, Sharon Watts offers a warning: “Howard County is knocking on our door.” Watts, the newly installed PTA president at nearby Ashburton Elementary School, says of the neighboring county to the northeast:

“Their schools are getting better and better, and our schools are getting bigger and bigger, and homebuyers are going to see that.”

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