2021 | Opinion

Opinion: Enrollment decline should be a wakeup call for MCPS

District will have to work to win back trust

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Breaking a decade-long trend, Montgomery County Public Schools announced in late October that the school system is losing students.

The era of steady, inevitable growth in MCPS is over, signaling dangerous consequences for the stability and funding of our county’s public schools.

Our local leaders must reflect on how we got here and what must be done to re-earn the trust of parents and students who gave up on Montgomery County’s public schools during the pandemic.

The hit to enrollment was significant. Seven thousand students — roughly three high schools’ worth — are gone from the system compared to 2019.

Those students didn’t just disappear. In the midst of the pandemic, parents of students from kindergarten to high school looked at MCPS and decided their kids were better off learning at home, in pods with other students, or in private schools.

They had good reason. As the data now proves, online school is no substitute for an education and MCPS dawdled on reopening schools in person safely.

When the weather allowed, early in the 2020-2021 school year, the system whiffed on the opportunity to have classes outside, where, scientists agree, there are far lower chances of COVID-19 transmission. And even with a significant runway, the system was unable to rapidly make changes to the inside of school buildings — like installing air purifiers and upgrading ventilation — that would have allowed safe learning indoors early in the pandemic.

The school system, in its vastness, failed to exercise the nimbleness or creativity that once made us a national leader on education. Kids suffered because of it.

So, thousands of parents gave up on MCPS and put their children in schools adroit enough to offer in-person learning. And a year later, even when public schools opened up for full in-person learning this fall, those parents not only didn’t return, even more parents joined them.

MCPS is now in recently uncharted fiscal waters. At the state and local level, school funding is determined by enrollment. MCPS’s budget has steadily grown because the county is required to fund the system at least at the same rate per student as the prior year.

Since, for so many years, MCPS had more students, it could count on more funds. Now that the students enrollment has dipped so significantly, there is no such guarantee.

That could easily mean a smaller school budget than this year’s, leading to layoffs, downsizing, and the elimination of critical programs that help level the playing field for all students. Even though the system may be serving fewer kids, fixed costs and economies of scale mean a smaller school budget will not go as far.

The charge of MCPS now is to regain the confidence of the thousands of students and parents who lost faith in our county’s public schools during the pandemic.

If the school system wants to bring back the students it lost, it must fundamentally change the way it does business. It must move with far greater urgency and vastly more transparency. Through words and through action, it must aggressively make the case that MCPS is still able to lead.

In the coming months, MCPS will almost certainly face a number of crises, big and small. The people of this county will watch carefully. Will the school system respond with the same confusing and bureaucratic lethargy that it did with school reopening? Or will it demonstrate the quickness, smart thinking, and innovation that has for so long attracted so many to our school system?

The critics and the naysayers argue that the best days of our county’s public schools are behind us. They say that MCPS no longer has what it takes to set a national example for an exceptional education system.

They’re wrong. MCPS should prove it.

Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

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