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By: Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong —
Baltimore County’s schools are old, overcrowded, outdated, and falling apart. County Executive Olszewski recently went hat-in-hand to Annapolis to ask for money to fund school construction. While the need is indeed great, the state should exercise caution.
We need taxes. Taxes build our roads, keep us safe and healthy, provide clean water, places to play, and places to learn. We also need for each and every tax dollar to be treated with respect, spent efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), with the blessing of the Board of Education and County Council, has done quite the opposite.
Over the past six years, BCPS has spent over $160 million tax dollars and is in the process of spending over $147 million more on hardware for a program that the interim Superintendent admits was never meant to and will not help students learn any better. In an interview, Superintendent White stated in a December 13, 2018 Baltimore Sun article “Four years in, Baltimore County schools’ $147M laptop program has produced little change in student achievement” that STAT (Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow), the initiative begun by now disgraced Superintendent Dance that put a screen in every student’s hand, “has never been about laptops increasing achievement…”.
Let that sink in. If BCPS continues in the same direction, Baltimore County will have spent at least half a billion tax dollars by 2030 on just the hardware for an educational initiative that will not help students read better, compute better, think better, understand better.
Tens of millions more, spent annually, are not counted in that number and account for unproven ed tech programs accessed through the devices.
It’s also true the program will not address the growing emotional and mental health needs of BCPS students, 36% of whom fall below the poverty level and over 2,500 who are homeless. The STAT program will not make classroom sizes smaller, provide AC, build new schools, or better secure the ones that we have. It will not address growing special education, ESOL or dyslexia needs, and will not feed children who come to school and leave on an empty stomach.
Ms. White is not alone in her assessment of STAT. Researchers from Johns Hopkins hired to evaluate the program agree that STAT is having little impact on academic achievement. A second JHU study, this one on the popular ed tech programs BCPS buys for millions of dollars to be played on the devices, finds that positive impacts are negligible. Which may be why BCPS performance on standardized tests has been either flat or has decreased.
If STAT wasn’t designed to help students learn, then what was its purpose? The answer BCPS gives is equity. Yet equity is not giving every student the same thing – in this case a computer – equity is making sure that the needs of each child is being fully met. In Baltimore County, they are not. For example:
- Support staff is woefully understaffed. The current ratio of school social workers to students is 1:1,176 when the recommended ratio is 1:250. The current ratio of school counselors is 1:346 when the recommended ratio is 1:250. The current ratio of school psychologists is 1:1,196 when the recommended ratio is 1:700.
- In Baltimore County, over 31,000 children struggle with food insecurity, the second highest level in the state and slightly more than Baltimore City. Last year, the district chose not to expand free lunch for students via the majority federally funded Community Eligibility Provision.
STAT has failed, and BCPS is failing to acknowledge the fact. Amazingly, they are doubling down. Against the education safety committee’s guidelines, the 2020 budget calls for increasing the number of computers in kindergarten, costing taxpayers $4 million per year for four years. Ask yourself, “Who benefits from the purchase of more computers?”
In education, the stakes couldn’t be higher. 2/3 of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. 85% of all juveniles in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. 70% of inmates in America’s prisons can’t read beyond a fourth grade level. In 2018, 57% of Maryland fourth graders were non-proficient in reading as scored on the PARCC test.
Baltimore County needs new schools, and it likely will need an influx of money from the state. But before the state agrees to help, Baltimore County should be forced to get its house in order. Starting with STAT, the BCPS operational budget needs to be audited and overhauled making sure that the money citizens are investing in their communities is being utilized to its fullest to realize the fullest out of every student.
The new administration and hybrid board has the opportunity and the obligation to restore the public trust in public education.
– Bronwyn Mitchell-Strong lives in Sparks and is a Baltimore County Public School parent, county foster-adoptive resource parent, PTA Treasurer, environmental educator, and author of Roost: Confessions of a First-time Chicken Farmer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.