Almost every time someone offered support for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s school takeover proposal during recent legislative hearings, members of the Board of Education bristled at the notion that the school system was somehow troubled.
“If a real crisis existed, the state Department of Education would have stepped in to take over,” Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) testified. “This system has shown steady and consistent progress.”
As Jacobs and others have defended the school system, Baker (D) has been open about his belief that Prince George’s schools — one of the lowest-performing districts in Maryland — are a liability to the county, holding back potential economic growth as people choose to live elsewhere in the Washington region for access to better education for their children.
So is Maryland’s second-largest school system improving rapidly, as many board members and teachers argue, or are the county’s schools struggling, as some parents and lawmakers contend?
State data show that both sides have an argument.
Prince George’s academic achievement rate has increased more quickly during the past five years than at almost all other school systems in Maryland, but because the county started so far below them, Prince George’s continues to rank among the state’s lowest-performing school systems.
“Do we have work to do? Of course we do,” said A. Duane Arbogast, the county’s acting deputy superintendent for academics. “Are we happy where we are? No.”
While the county has made progress, the gains have done little to close the gap with other school districts in Maryland, all of which also have shown improvements on state-level standardized tests.
“People don’t want to use the term ‘struggling,’ ” said board member Carletta Fellows (District 7), the only school board member who supported Baker’s takeover. “But we have challenges. . . . And if you look at the percentage increases that we have experienced, they still show that some of our children are below grade-level ability in reading and mathematics.”
In 2007, 53 percent of Prince George’s County eighth-graders passed the Maryland School Assessment exams in reading, and 37.6 percent of the students were proficient in math. Five years later, the county posted double-digit gains in both categories — among the biggest in the state — with 69.6 percent of its eighth-graders proficient in reading and 50.4 proficient in math.
Baltimore City, the worst-performing school system in Maryland in both 2007 and 2012, had the highest percentage increase for its eighth-graders during the five-year span.
The percentage increase in Montgomery County was slightly lower than in Prince George’s, but the level of achievement was consistently far higher. In 2007, 77.1 percent of Montgomery’s eighth-graders passed reading and 67.4 were proficient in math. By 2012, 87.6 percent were proficient in reading and 76.7 passed math — 18 percentage points and 26 percentage points higher, respectively, than in Prince George’s.
Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Prince George’s would have to “substantially outperform year in and year out” to gain ground against its neighboring counties.
“Prince George’s is starting on its own 20-yard line, and many of the others are starting on the 50,” Hess said, noting that demographics give the other school systems an advantage.
Even though Prince George’s is one of the most affluent majority-black jurisdictions in the country, many middle-class families send their children to private schools. Of the 200 schools in the county, 135 contain a student population where 50 percent or more are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty.
Arbogast said that improving a school system that has large concentrations of poverty is challenging. And yet, he said, the county has been able to do it in some communities with “dynamic teachers and principals” and engaged parents.
Hess said it can take a struggling school system up to eight years of substantial improvements to get to a level “where it no longer feels abysmal.”
Prince George’s struggles in areas of common testing, and with graduation rates:
●The average combined score on SAT exams in Prince George’s last year was 1274 out of 2400, more than 200 points below the national average. Average scores in Montgomery and Fairfax counties were 1651 and 1659, respectively. The average test score in the District was 1184.
●Seventy-five percent of the nearly 33,000 students in Montgomery County who took Advanced Placement exams in 2012 scored a 3 or higher, and 72 percent received a 3 or higher in Fairfax. More than 27 percent of Prince George’s students received a 3 or higher on the tests, which grade on a five-point scale and offer college credit to students who score 3 or higher in various subjects.
●One in four Prince George’s students did not graduate from high school last year. The county’s 72.7 percent graduation rate is more than 10 percentage points below the state average. More than 87 percent of Montgomery County students graduated, while more than 91 percent of Fairfax students earned a diploma.
Board members and union officials say it is unfair to compare Prince George’s County with Montgomery, Howard and Fairfax counties, which have higher per-pupil spending and fewer students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. According to the Washington Area Boards of Education, Fairfax spent $13,564 per student in fiscal year 2013. Montgomery spent $14,880, while Prince George’s spent $12,296 the same year.
And about 44,000 students in Fairfax County received subsidized meals in 2011, while just more than 47,000 in Montgomery County and about 70,000 in Prince George’s received such assistance, highlighting a significant difference in poverty.
“When we look at the demographics and compare to others, we’re doing a great job,” said Blair Todd, a teacher at Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton. “Is there room for improvement? Yes. Everybody wants success fast, but it takes time. Don’t act like Prince George’s hasn’t had success, that’s what I take offense to.”
But Baker and others said the gains are not happening fast enough. They said that when business owners and new residents are deciding where to locate, they look at how well schools perform.
“This has been a decades-long challenge for Prince George’s County,” said former Maryland governor Parris Glendening, who served as county executive from 1982 to 1994. “This really is not just about education, but the future of the county. If you have that number of students doing so poorly, what does it say for the well-being of the county?”
Baker proposed a takeover that would have put him in charge of the school superintendent and the school system’s $1.7 billion budget. In a compromise, the General Assembly approved a bill that allows him to name the superintendent, select the school board’s chair and vice chair and appoint three members to the board.
Baker said the plan was not designed to criticize the school district, which has had conflicts during the past 20 years surrounding busing, superintendent selection and management control. As a parent of three Prince George’s County graduates, Baker said he knows that the county offers a good education.
“We just don’t provide it everywhere,” he said. “We have to make sure that every single child that walks through our door is provided with the greatest education that they can possibly get.”
Teachers said regardless of who takes the helm of the school system, they worry about how the recent battle for control will affect the classroom.
Seth Tucker, a University of Maryland graduate and a resource teacher at Deerfield Run Elementary School in Laurel, said many of his peers did not want to work in Prince George’s because of its reputation. He predicts recruiting will be even tougher now.
Worse than that, Tucker said he worries about the message the county’s students and teachers have received.
“Words do have an impact on students,” Tucker said. “The message is: ‘We fail.’ And having been there on the front lines, I can say we have a way to go, but we have come a long way.”