Few college graduates on Prince George’s school board

The Prince George’s County school board has fewer college graduates serving current terms than any other school system in the Washington region, with only two of its eight members holding a bachelor’s degree.

That 25 percent of the board has a college degree places Prince George’s in stark contrast with boards in large districts throughout the region and across the United States, according to national school board data and a Washington Post survey of all Washington area jurisdictions.

Every member of the boards in the District and in Montgomery, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties has at least a bachelor’s degree. Eight of nine members of Alexandria’s board have a college degree. Excluding Prince George’s, 58 of 59 board members in the Washington area have graduated from college.

Although a college degree is not a requirement to serve on the elected board that governs Maryland’s second-largest school system, the board sets policies to help make students in the district college-ready as it enacts and implements educational policies, adopts budgets and establishes curriculum guides.

According to the National School Boards Association, 85 percent of board members in large districts across the United States have at least a bachelor’s degree, and more than half report that they have earned an advanced degree. According to the data, the Prince George’s board — which represents one of the most highly educated black jurisdictions in the country — is far below that average.

Residents, parents and educators have varying opinions about the educational achievement of the Prince George’s school board members. Some said it is important for those setting educational policy to have a strong academic background, while others said leadership experience and dedication to the community can trump the importance of a college degree.

Some Prince George’s board members said their hard work and dedication to the students and families they represent is as important as anything else.

Robert Smith, an associate professor at the George Mason University Graduate School of Education, said that earning a college degree might not be a requirement to serve as a school board member, but it is beneficial.

“The presence or absence of a degree should not be the controlling variable, but on the other hand, people who are in charge of education policy should have the experience of having a solid education,” said Smith, the former schools superintendent for Arlington Public Schools. “It makes considerable sense.”

Earnest Moore, president of the Prince George’s County PTA Council, said a college degree offers “added value” to school board members.

“We are in the business of educating our children, and we promote college opportunities,” Moore said. “I think it’s something that they should have.”

But Phil Lee, a community activist, said he is not certain that a degree matters much for board membership.

“I don’t think it should make a difference,” Lee said. “I think that a person’s commitment to their community and an established track record of working with our children and with the school administrators” is the important factor, Lee said. “I think that, in this case, experience should equate to an academic achievement, if you will.”

Some residents said the educational achievement of Prince George’s board members has become a significant topic of discussion as voters consider the future of the school system and its turnover in leadership with the departure of the school chief.

The same discussion has surfaced in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich (R) recently appointed a former pro football player, who dropped out of college, to fill a seat on the state Board of Education. The selection created a public stir, raising questions about whether a college degree should be a prerequisite for such boards.

School board member Henry P. Armwood Jr. (District 7) — who has attended Merrimac University, Florida A&M University and Montgomery College, according to his biography on the Prince George’s County Public Schools Web site — said that working with his children and as a parent liaison for the school system qualified him for the school board more than a college degree could.

“In school board work, experience and willingness to learn and work together is more important than a degree,” Armwood said. “A degree is a piece of paper.”

School board member Amber Waller (District 3), who attended two years at Columbia Union College, said she values the importance of a college education but has some mixed feelings about whether a degree is necessary to become a successful board member.

“I think it’s good to have a college degree,” Waller said. “But having a degree or not does not have an impact on whether I’m a good school board member.”

Waller, 64, said she dropped out of college so her parents could send her younger sister to school. The family could not afford tuition for both children, she said. Her younger sister graduated and became a teacher.

Waller, who defeated a candidate with a college degree in her most recent election, said that what she might lack in education she makes up for in life experience.

School board member Edward Burroughs III (District 8), who is in his junior year at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, said he thought it ironic that so many members of the school board did not have college degrees.

“Throughout this campaign, a lot of the criticism that the young candidates have received is that we have not graduated from college,” said Burroughs, who is running for reelection. Two other candidates younger than 21 are vying for seats on the board. “That has baffled me because only two out of [eight] seats have college degrees. . . . At the end of the day, I believe everyone has skills to bring something to the table regardless of your education status, but you can’t have a double standard.”

Donna Hathaway Beck (District 9) said she originally had second thoughts about running for a board seat because she has an associate’s degree. “I was self-evaluating whether I had the skills,” said Beck, who said she attended every board meeting for nine years before deciding to run for, and ultimately winning, a seat in 2006.

“I spent 20 years consumed — as my husband would call it — by the school system and how to make it better,” Beck said. “So I would hold that up against someone who comes out [of college] with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture.”

School board members Patricia Eubanks (District 4) and Carolyn M. Boston (District 6) did not return calls seeking comment. According to their biographies on the school system’s Web site, they did not obtain bachelor’s degrees.

School board member Peggy Higgins (District 2) has a degree in social work from Catholic University and a master’s degree in general administration from U-Md.’s University College. School board chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) has a bachelor’s degree in criminology from U-Md. and a law degree from the University of the District of Columbia, and she also has served as an adjunct professor at U-Md.’s University College, according to her board biography.

Former Superintendent William Hite, who left the county in September to become schools chief in Philadelphia, said board membership requires “vast experience.”

“It is incumbent upon the electorate to do their background on these things,” Hite said. “They have to do the appropriate vetting of all candidates.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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