IN PRINCE George’s County, politicians walk a tightrope between promising to improve the sorry state of the local school system, one of the nation’s 25 largest , and balking at revenue hikes that might actually do the job. The county council, having spurned a major tax increase for schools last month, is now trying to make amends. Unfortunately, its efforts so far amount to little more than window dressing.
On Tuesday, the all-Democratic council voted to earmark a portion of future proceeds from a big MGM casino and resort, scheduled to open next year at National Harbor, for schools, libraries and community colleges. The move was a response to taxpayers who opposed a steep property tax increase proposed in the spring by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) and wondered why the casino wouldn’t generate a windfall for the schools.
The council capped the gaming revenue drawn for schools, libraries and colleges at $25 million annually, which sounds like a respectable sum. On closer examination, it would probably mean no more than $10 million, at best, for the county’s approximately 200 public schools — perhaps two years from now.
That’s fine but unlikely to make a meaningful impact in a school system with an annual budget of $1.8 billion. Mr. Baker’s proposed property tax increase would have yielded some $133 million, a sum he said would boost the graduation rate, now 70 percent, and catapult the low-performing system into the state’s top 10. After getting an earful from their constituents, council members gave Mr. Baker just a quarter of the funds he sought.
The trouble is, the council’s move left the schools and their nearly 125,000 students only marginally better off. It also guaranteed that come election time, council members will once again report that many Prince George’s voters tend to name fixing poor schools as No. 1 on their list of priorities.
Mr. Baker, who is term-limited, waited until after he was reelected to speak truth to county residents who demand better public schools but cannot countenance higher property taxes. By contrast, the county council is engaged mainly in a charade by which it pretends that improving schools is possible without pain and commitment.
If earmarking specific taxes were the key to better performance, the Prince George’s school system would be the envy of its neighbors. All or part of the revenue collected by the county through its telecommunications tax, its energy tax, its personal property tax, its real property tax and its transfer tax on home sales now goes to the schools.
The fact is that the schools remain woefully underfunded. A typical teacher’s salary is $65,000, which is $10,000 lower than in neighboring Montgomery County. For years the annual increases in county spending on the system averaged just 1.5 percent.
The anemic spending was largely the result of a long-standing tax cap in the county that Mr. Baker was finally able to scrap, thanks to state legislation making special allowances for education outlays. Breaking the tax cap was a critical first step. Now the council needs to take further steps to strengthen the schools that go beyond symbolism.