Dear Extra Credit:

I have a question about funding in the Montgomery County schools. While public perception seems to be that schools in the "red zone" (less advantaged areas) receive less funding than schools in the "green zone" (more affluent areas), the opposite is true. The disparity in funding is quite large. For example, in the 125 elementary schools, the school with the most funding receives $12,808 per student in instructional funding. The school at the bottom of the pile gets $5,456 per student.

How does the school system decide upon funding levels? How do they decide that the differential should be so great? Why do green zone students not have textbooks? I've even heard that red zone students have two sets: one for school; one for home. We withdrew our children from Potomac Elementary. . . . My fourth-grade daughter does not know what to do with a textbook because she never had even one at Potomac.

Heidi Dubin

Potomac

As you say, schools with more students who need more special instruction -- because of poverty or disabilities -- get more money, in Montgomery County and many other districts.

School board member Charles Haughey (At Large) says students in green zone schools get textbooks, although some principals and teachers, such as those at Potomac Elementary, may decide that readers, workbooks and other special materials work better. Linda Goldberg, principal at Potomac Elementary, says she has a research-based curriculum that uses a range of resources to match each student's needs. Textbooks are sometimes used, but only those parts that work best, she says.

Haughey says that "for the current fiscal year, we took funds from other accounts in order to purchase centrally $4.4 million worth of textbooks to support the revised curriculum. These textbooks are for every school in the county. Additionally, all schools in the county receive $4.6 million for textbooks based on the same per-pupil formula, regardless of where the school is located." He says some schools receive federal grants that allow them to buy even more materials.

According to board member Walt Lange (Rockville-Potomac), funding levels are set based on complicated formulas. The most important number is enrollment. Schools with more students get more money. Different grade levels also have different funding needs. Then, Lange says, "schools receive extra resources detailed in the budget for a variety of reasons, including having students with special needs, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), and students highly impacted by poverty."

Schools in the red zone get more money, says board member Kermit V. Burnett (Silver Spring) because they have "the most students at risk for failure because of poverty, mobility, limited English skills, et cetera."

"Most of our improvement initiatives such as teacher development and new curricula have been implemented in all schools in the county," he says. "But, because the differential in achievement was so great, we targeted elementary school resources for those at-risk students -- in the form of lower class size and full-day kindergarten. . . . Our efforts are paying off with substantial gains in student performance across the county and a narrowing of the achievement gap among elementary students."

Burnett says "the increasing numbers of students coming to MCPS from private schools is a testament to our record of excellence. In the past four years, we have had a net increase of 1,990 students enrolling in MCPS from private schools."