Prince George’s school blues
County officials have to find a way to get the education system the funds it needs.
BUDGET DELIBERATIONS in Prince George’s County have been unusually bitter this year. The politics of raising taxes sparked a vigorous debate complete with an unusual veto by the county executive, a slap-down from the council and, most recently, a novel interpretation about the limits of power. What sadly has been given short shrift are the worthwhile programs that would greatly benefit public school students but can’t be implemented without more money.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) undertook a valiant but likely doomed effort to generate substantial new revenue for the chronically underfunded Prince George’s school system. Devising a way to loosen the onerous grip of the county’s long-standing property tax cap, Mr. Baker wanted $133 million for schools but was willing to settle for $65 million. The council rebuffed both efforts, voting instead for a modest tax increase that would generate $34 million for the schools while setting aside money for county parks. Final action is pending, and Mr. Baker has threatened additional vetoes as well as a possible— and to our mind, questionable — legal challenge of the council’s ability to make cuts.
Prince George’s residents can be forgiven if they are confused. What they should focus on, though, is the need to make good schools more of a priority. We have never argued that dollars necessarily translate into good education results, but 35 years of the tax cap has placed Prince George’s schools and their students at a decided disadvantage. Consider, for example, the finding of a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that of all the districts in the D.C. metro area, Prince George’s spends the fewest dollars per pupil. The discrepancy becomes all the more pronounced when the county’s high proportion of students with special needs is taken into account.
If the council prevails, the additional $34 million would largely go to fund teacher pension costs that previously had been picked up by the state. That means that programs that would expand preschool, hire literacy coaches, target struggling students, strengthen curriculum and improve computer skills would be put on hold. It also would mean no money to make teacher pay competitive, so Prince George’s would continue to be the training ground for teachers who would move on to better-paying districts once they gain experience and become more accomplished.
That status quo should not be acceptable for a county that claims to have big ambitions. The council and executive, in the time left before the budget becomes final, need to come to a reasonable meeting of the minds that gives the schools additional resources aimed at boosting student achievement.