Montgomery Innovations: Lessons for Baltimore?

One of the education establishment’s defenses of its poor performance (in relation to private and parochial schools) is that non-public schools are selective. That is, private and parochial schools may choose their own students, leaving the most difficult students for the public schools to deal with. This is used as a rationale to justify annual expenditure per student in the average American public high school of almost $7,000, while the typical non-public secondary school gets by charging tuition of less than $5,000.

In New York City, however, the parochial schools have for years been offering to take the public school system’s very worst students – an offer regarded as something of an embarrassment by the public schools. This summer, Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) took up the offer, suggesting that the parochial schools take the worst-performing five percent of city students.

But less commonly known is the fact that Montgomery County’s public schools’ superintendent, Paul L. Vance, a few weeks ago stated that he would be “amenable”to a similar offer from the parochial schools in his county. Lawrence S. Callahan, the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington (which includes Montgomery County), is quoted as being “interested in talking about it.”

Contacted by the Calvert News for his reaction, the president of the Maryland State Teachers’ Association (MSTA), Karl Pense, said that this would “clearly violate the separation issue,” referring to the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. Even as matters currently stand, he went on, there are not enough resources for the public schools. So these funds should not be “diluted” further by, in effect, sharing them with the local parochial schools. (At this point, it bears mentioning that Montgomery County’s public schools are by far the best financed in the state. In school year [SY] 1994-95, expenditure per elementary/secondary student was $7,539, compared to $6,106 statewide.)

Parochial Schools Cheaper

There is a case to be made that, far from diluting the public schools’ finances, the utilization of parochial schools by the public sector would actually save funds.

The archdiocese was unable to provide the Calvert Institute with per-pupil costs for its secondary schools in Montgomery County because all but one of the 17 Catholic secondary schools within the archdiocese are independently operated (though affiliated with the archdiocese). All the same, Vincent Clark, the director of school marketing and public relations for the archdiocese, agreed that costs at the Catholic schools undoubtedly are cheaper than at the county’s public schools. As an example, he cited the elementary schools within the archdiocese, which covers the District of Columbia and the Maryland suburban counties. Unlike the secondary schools, the grade schools are directly controlled by the archdiocese. At these schools, the costs per pupil over SY1994-95 were just $3,158 (with tuition charges making up some $2,100 of that and the balance in the form of a diocesan subsidy).

To be sure, secondary schools are more expensive than elementary schools. Clark did not have per-pupil costs for the one secondary school operated by the diocese, though he did cite its tuition rate. The Archbishop Carroll School in Washington this year charges $3,900 for Catholics and $4,150 for non-Catholics. Even assuming a diocesan subsidy of greater magnitude than the elementary schools get, clearly the cost of parochial secondary schools cannot be anywhere near the $7,539 per student that gets billed to the taxpayers by the county public schools. If the county’s poorest performing students were sent to Catholic schools, with the county picking up the tab, the difference between (high) public per-student costs and (low) parochial per-pupil expenses could be sunk back into the public system. Such savings would benefit everyone, surely (and students would benefit from the diocesan schools’ 98 percent college acceptance rate).

More Innovation

To be fair to the MSTA, it is considerably more enthusiastic about another innovative proposal to have emerged from Montgomery Superintendent Vance’s office. The Calvert Institute has learned that Vance will this month recommend to his school board the creation of a limited school-choice plan in the northeastern part of the county. Four public schools – three existing ones and a new one – would participate in the scheme, if approved. Called the “preferred choice program,” the plan would create a new attendance area encompassing the Paint Branch, Springbrook and Sherwood high schools, along with an as-yet unnamed new school.

Joseph Lavorgna, the school district’s director of planning for capital programs, told the Calvert Institute that the four schools will feature “signature” specialities, such as humanities and the performing arts in the new school. The others will feature science and multimedia communications, international studies and foreign relations, and international baccalaureate studies and computer science. Parents within the relevant geographic area will apply to the school of their choice. The school district will match preferences with available places. If the program is successful, it may be replicated elsewhere in the county.

MSTA President Pense says that his association is all for “optimum choice,” as long as only public schools are involved. However, it is not clear where the plan will go from here. As this edition goes to press, the school board is meeting to discuss alternatives to the Vance recommendations. On November 18-19, public hearings will be held to determine support for the Vance plan and/or the board’s substitute. The board will take action on November 25-26. We commend Superintendent Vance for his commitment to exploring all options for improving education in Montgomery County. Let us hope that we can soon say the same of his school board.

Posted in: Education, News Series