While education reformers struggle to compete with opponents to make a case for bold and urgent change, parents in Prince George’s County are going to great lengths to signal how much they value quality education and how urgent quality education is to them.
The stagnant expansion of school choice in the county has pushed
parents into private schools or new school districts for what they perceive to be a more quality education. While Prince George’s touts 7 charter schools and a growing Secondary School Reform program, the demand for charter schools and specialty programs at select county high schools continues to exceed the supply.
The high rate of displacement from home foreclosures and transfer to private/parochial schoolshas led to traditional school enrollment being down 10 percent, or 13,4000, in the last eight years to approximately 125,000 Meanwhile, in Washington, as charter schools see tremendous increases) in enrollment- about 11 percent- enrollment at traditional schools remain stagnant. The slow exodus from traditional public schools has consequences. The drop in enrollment has resulted in the closing of 12 Prince George’s County schools and countless economic spillovers into the jobs and housing markets.
The District is scheduled to close nearly 20 schools as they reconcile lower enrollment in select schools. School districts with lower enrollment are almost always another district’s gain. Fairfax County has added more than 13,000 students in the past eight years, reaching an enrollment of 177,606
Montgomery County, the second-largest district in the region, gained more than 7,000 and now has 146,976 students since 2004. DC and Maryland parents are signaling their priorities with their feet and the pocketbooks.
James Durham’s relationship to the county school system began with his struggle as a local student. James later realized how unprepared he was as a freshman at Howard University. An honor student in high school, James was surprised to see that his success didn’t translate to college. James and his wife started their daughter off at a private school where he paid as much for private school as he paid in tuition fees at Howard. When asked about how he chose the best school system, James shared “I looked at school rankings in the region.”
When pressed about Maryland’s schools ranking number one in the country, James was quick to respond: “Maryland may be number one, but Prince George’s definitely isn’t.” Prince George’s graduation rate ranks second worst in the DC metro region. James and his wife chose to relocate their 7 year-old daughter to Fairfax County with much sacrifice.
For the past four years, James and his family has deferred moving into a home they could afford in Prince George’s for an apartment in McLean. James also has to drive a considerable distance to work each day in Maryland since relocating as well. In the end, James and his wife believe their sacrifice and investment is paying off, as James was proud to share that their daughter, now 11, is “doing great [in school] has a strong chance of getting into a selective program in a nearby public high school.”
Desiree McCoy and her husband moved from Washington to Prince George’s with the best intentions for their family. The McCoy’s experience in a system without universal pre-K, overcrowded classes, or an emphasis on extra-curricular activities prompted them to remove their two children from county schools in exchange for a county-based private school. Though private schooling their children required the McCoy’s to be more conscientious of how and when they spend and save, their private school also had a program to subsidize tuition for families.
Like the Durham’s, the McCoy’s are pleased with their investment. Any disappoint about having to move to a private school is overshadowed when McCoy talks about her 12-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. McCoy loves to share how much her kids “have seen tremendous spiritual, emotional, and academic growth at their school.”
Irving H, who asked that his last name not be used, is a single father who worked multiple jobs to afford his son’s tuition to DeMatha High School, an all-male private school in Prince George’s. The product of a single parent home himself, Irving never attended college but always instilled its importance to his son.
Irving’s decision to incur the cost of one of the most prestigious private schools in the region was based on the school’s relative diversity and storied track record for alumni being awarded college scholarships. The cost of tuition required Irving to generate more revenue from his rental properties, take on additional work assignments as a home contractor, and take on extra hours as a Service Technician with a local cable company. Irving shared “[Paying for school] was definitely not easy, if it took paying a bill late to make sure my son school was paid, I did it.” Irving’s son eventually received a full scholarship to a four-year college in Pennsylvania.
The decision to choose private schools over public schools is no longer limited to the super wealthy. The face of the private school parent is Irving and McCoy. And while working class Prince Georgians signal how much they value quality education with the financial sacrifices they are making, pubic education advocates continue to lose a valuable constituency of concerned and engaged parents.
Enrolling children in private schools or moving to a district with a strong school system is not an answer in and of itself. James and his wife are the first to say they still work closely with their daughter, and are slow to give all the credit to the system. Schools are incredibly important, but the value parents place on education can be even more important.
The lengths parents are going through to give their child the best opportunity to succeed should inspire those fighting for reform to come together now and create urgency around the bold reforms it will take to compete with neighboring districts. Irving said it best, “If you can invest in a home or a property, than you can invest in your kid.”