The school district has made scant progress since 2015 — the last time the oversight office published a study on achievement gaps — in ensuring equitable access to resources, officials say.
Schools with large populations of students from low-income families are typically cash-strapped. Those campuses struggle to retain experienced teachers and have a disproportionate number of students who have experienced trauma. Seventy-eight percent of Latino children and 71 percent of black students attend elementary schools that are struggling, according to the report.
“Black and brown students have not come first on the majority of occasions,” said Diego Uriburu, executive director of the advocacy group Identity. “We want [Montgomery County Public Schools’] resources to positively affect our students. By resources, we mean staff, time and money. Our communities cannot tolerate the status quo.”
The report, published in December, comes as Maryland lawmakers prepare to consider recommendations proposed by the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, better known as the Kirwan Commission. The commission is asking for record-level state and local spending to expand prekindergarten offerings, increase teacher salaries and provide more services for students from low-income households and those receiving special-education services.
The state’s teachers union backs the plan, but Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has blasted it as too expensive.
The report on Montgomery County found school leaders budgeted $47 million less than what they received for programs designed to help students from impoverished families. The district brought in $171 million in state and federal funds for the services but spent $124 million.
School system spokesman Derek Turner said officials have concerns about that figure.
“That doesn’t mesh with our data,” Turner said in an email.
The school district recently contracted with national nonprofit Educational Resource Strategies to study how resources are spread across schools. The oversight office used different criteria from what the school district’s vendor uses when it determined the size of Montgomery County’s budget for programs that serve students living in poverty, according to the oversight office’s report.
School leaders plan to meet Jan. 27 with the County Council. Reports and recommendations from the Office of Legislative Oversight help the council shape its priorities.
In a letter to the oversight office, Schools Superintendent Jack R. Smith defended his approach to closing achievement gaps. Smith outlined an initiative called “All In: Equity and Achievement Framework.”
The initiative “provides a sophisticated way of matching student experience and performance with characteristics of poverty and race, moving away from traditional aggregate reporting of results that tell us about who the schools serve rather than how well they serve their student population,” Smith said in the letter. “This is new and drives the system’s equity work to increased levels not previously attainable with single measure, aggregate level reporting.”
However, the oversight office’s report called the county’s efforts “largely ineffective.” On several measures of academic performance, disparities between white and Asian students and black and Latino children remain unchanged. In several cases — particularly regarding SAT scores, English language arts and graduation rates — the performance gaps between Latinos and their white and Asian peers grew wider.
“These findings echo findings from prior [Office of Legislative Oversight] reports documenting persistent performance gaps by race and ethnicity in 2007, 2008, 2013 and 2014,” the report reads.
Two-thirds of Asian students and 70 percent of white children are meeting school readiness benchmarks, according to an assessment given to kindergartners that tests their proficiency in language, literacy and math as well as their social foundations, physical well-being and motor development. Forty-six percent of black students and 35 percent of Latino children met the county’s benchmarks.
Latinos represent the largest student group in the school system of more than 165,000 students; they are 11 times as likely as their Asian peers to drop out of high school.
“It’s very concerning,” said Laura Stewart, vice president of advocacy for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. “It means that we really haven’t been focusing on this. I am filled with hope, though.”
Gaps between children from low-income families, students with disabilities and English-language learners and their peers who do not receive special services widened or remained unchanged on more than a dozen measures, including math, English language arts, school readiness and graduation rates.
And investments in ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) services and programs for children from low-income families account for just 8 percent of the school district’s operating budget, although more than half of the students in the county are from impoverished families or learning English, the report found. Students with disabilities account for 12 percent of public school enrollment in Montgomery County, and the school system spends 18 percent of its operating budget on services related to special education, according to the report.
The report does contain bright spots. Gaps between black students and white and Asian children have narrowed on Algebra 1 standardized-test scores, middle school math and performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. Fewer black teenagers and students from impoverished families are dropping out of high school. More special-education students are demonstrating proficiency in middle school English language arts and math.
Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice (D-District 2) said the report’s findings reflect trends in K-12 education across Maryland. Rice serves on the Kirwan Commission and added that the report’s findings underscore the importance of the group’s work.
“It was actually refreshing to see that the [Office of Legislative Oversight] report backed up the Kirwan Commission,” Rice said. “We’ve now got a model that’s not just throwing money at the problem.”
Montgomery County school officials recently announced they would study school boundary lines, paying special attention to the capacity of buildings, student demographics and travel patterns. Advocates said they hope that will lead to more racially and socioeconomically diverse schools.
“You see the effects of people starting to develop biases about people who come from different walks of life, whether that be racial intolerance, religious intolerance,” said Michael Solomon, a senior at Springbrook High School and co-founder of advocacy group MoCo Students for Change. “Our hope is that this analysis will be able to inform future districtwide boundary changes.”