The Washington Post

Montgomery Council, superintendent debate spending on achievement gap

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, shown in July 2011. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Relations between the Montgomery County Council and public school system officials can be summed up with two figures: 0.1 percent and 100 percent.

That is the percentage of new school spending each agency estimates will be dedicated to closing the achievement gap in fiscal 2014.

The difference between the two figures highlights the growing chasm between the council and the Board of Education as budget deliberations continued Friday.

The school system has said that closing the achievement gap is one of its top three priorities, and that its fiscal 2014 budget request aligns with that. But “the few new investments aimed at closing the achievement gap together account for only 1/10th of one percent of MCPS’ entire $2.1 billion recommended operating budget for FY14,” according to a county report presented at a Friday education committee meeting.

Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, however, said the district doesn’t categorize spending that way.

“It is a difficult thing in Montgomery County to separate out the pie into those things that are explicitly related to the achievement gap and other things,” Starr said. “One hundred percent of our budget” is dedicated to ensuring “every child in Montgomery County achieves at the highest level.”

Disagreement, however, didn’t end there.

Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said the school system’s efforts to close the achievement gap over the past decades haven’t worked. And with school spending making up about half of the county’s operating budget, he wants to see “new and innovative ways in which to turn the corner.”

Starr acknowledged that the system does still have gaps, but “the Montgomery County community has gotten a high return on investment.” Starr discussed initiatives that the school system was working on to close the gap, including one he’ll roll out at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting that will identify about 10 lower-performing schools that will get extra resources and “case management” support.

But those answers didn't satisfy some.

“You need to have an understanding or empathy for the fact that there are so many African American or Latino families who have a sense of urgency for what we say about this topic,” council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County) said.

Right before that comment, Ervin had pointed to members of the audience who have been actively working to close the achievement gap in the country for 40 years. She then noted that Starr has only been superintendent of schools for two years.

The Office of Legislative Oversight released a report in March showing mixed progress in eliminating the academic performance divide between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students. The gap has narrowed in areas such as graduation rates, and advanced reading scores on state exams for students in third and fifth grades. But the gap has grown in scores on state math exams for third- , fifth- and eighth-graders, where whites and Asians more often score at advanced levels.

The council has been using the report to frame budget discussions, which have been fraught with tension over the past few years.

“We know you’re working hard, we know this is not easy,” Ervin said. “We’re not the enemy here, we’re the partner.”

The education committee will meet again to discuss school spending April 24.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.

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