Breaking a ten-year trend, Montgomery County Public Schools announced in late October that the school system was losing students.
The era of constant and inevitable MCPS growth is over, signaling dangerous consequences for the stability and funding of our county’s public schools.
Our local leaders need to think about how we got here and what needs to be done to regain the trust of parents and students who abandoned Montgomery County public schools during the pandemic.
The impact on registration was significant. Seven thousand students, or about three high schools, have disappeared from the system compared to 2019.
These students did not just disappear. In the midst of the pandemic, parents of kindergarten through high school students took a look at MCPS and decided their kids had better learn at home, in groups with other students, or in private schools.
They had good reasons. As the data now proves, online schooling is no substitute for education and MCPS has focused on reopening schools in person safely.
When the weather permitted, at the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the system breathed in the opportunity to have lessons outside, where, according to scientists, the chances of transmission of COVID-19 are much lower. And even with a significant lead, the system was unable to quickly make changes to the interiors of school buildings – such as installing air purifiers and improving ventilation – that would have enabled safe learning indoors at the onset of the pandemic.
The school system, in its vastness, has failed to exercise the agility or creativity that has made us a national leader in education. The children suffered from it.
So, thousands of parents have dropped out of MCPS and put their children in schools that are skillful enough to offer in-person learning. And a year later, even when public schools opened their doors to in-person learning this fall, not only did these parents not return, but more parents joined them.
MCPS is now in recently uncharted fiscal waters. At the state and local levels, funding for schools is determined by the number of enrollments. MCPS’s budget has steadily increased because the county is required to fund the system at least at the same rate per student as the year before.
Since, for so many years, MCPS had more students, it could count on more funds. Now that the number of students has dropped significantly, there is no longer any guarantee.
This could easily mean a lower school budget than this year, resulting in layoffs, downsizing and the elimination of essential programs that help level the playing field for all students. Even though the system serves fewer children, fixed costs and economies of scale mean that a smaller school budget won’t go that far.
The onus of MCPS now is to regain the trust of the thousands of students and parents who lost faith in our county’s public schools during the pandemic.
If the school system is to bring back the students it has lost, it has to fundamentally change the way it does business. It must act with much more urgency and much more transparency. By word and by deed, he must aggressively make the case that MCPS is still capable of leading.
In the coming months, MCPS will almost certainly face a number of crises, large and small. The people of this county will be watching carefully. Will the school system react with the same confusing and bureaucratic lethargy that it did with the reopening of schools? Or will it demonstrate the speed, smart thinking, and innovation that have drawn so many people into our school system for so long?
Critics and naysayers contend that the best days of our county’s public schools are behind us. They say MCPS no longer has what it takes to set the national example for an exceptional education system.
They are wrong. MCPS should prove it.
Rising Voices is an occasional column by John F. Kennedy High School graduate Nate Tinbite; Ananya Tadikonda, graduate of Richard Montgomery High School; and Matt Post, a graduate of Sherwood High School. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.
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