Washington Post: Post-U. Md. poll: Maryland parents say crowded classrooms are a problem

October 14, 2018
By: Donna St. George and Emily Guskin

More than 6 in 10 Maryland parents with children 18 or younger believe crowded classrooms are a problem in their schools, according to a new poll that also shows substantial concern about low test scores and overtesting.

Even so, a majority of voters rate their county’s public schools as good or excellent, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

Voters in some suburbs of Washington — including Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties — are especially upbeat about their schools: Roughly 8 in 10 give them positive marks.

“Maybe not as tiptop as they once were, but still good or very good,” said Karin Nelson, a retired physician from Montgomery County who sent four children to county schools and says all went on to earn advanced degrees.

With the Nov. 6 election nearing, the results give a glimpse of one of the top issues in the race for governor — education — as candidates enter the final stretch of the campaign.

Positive opinions about the state of schools play to Gov. Larry Hogan’s advantage, experts say. Hogan, a Republican, is leading his Democratic rival, Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP, by a 20-point margin as he seeks a second term.

“People are satisfied with the schools; it’s no wonder they are rewarding the governor for that,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College. “When things are going well in the state, people tend to reward the incumbent.”

The poll finds 48 percent of Maryland voters say they trust Hogan more to handle public education, while 36 percent say they trust Jealous more.

Jealous, who was endorsed by the statewide teachers union, has made education a major part of his platform — including proposals to expand prekindergarten and raise teacher pay — but he has trailed Hogan in fundraising and campaign advertisements.

An exception to school satisfaction is in Prince George’s County, where the poll finds that 63 percent of voters rate their county’s schools as “only fair” or “poor.”

Baltimore City’s ratings also are mostly negative, although the sample size is too small for reliable percentages.

Baltimore County is split, 46 percent positive and 44 percent negative.

In an analysis by race, 66 percent of white registered voters give their county school systems high marks, compared with 45 percent of black voters.

In follow-up interviews, some voters were nuanced in their views.

Rick Shafer, 65, a parent in Prince George’s County, said his 25-year-old son had a very good experience in the school system — he was involved in magnet programs — but Shafer has heard reports of other students not faring as well and has been disappointed over the years with school board leadership and some of the district’s superintendents.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Shafer, a Democrat.

Focusing on parents, the poll finds that a significant minority — 38 percent — believe that corruption in their public school system is a problem, and 29 percent call it a “major problem.”

While that issue does not overtake more typical concerns about education, some experts found the number surprising.

“Almost 40 percent, I think, is an alarming number,” said Michael Hanmer, research director for the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, which co-sponsored the poll. Many people are cynical about politics, he said, but “corruption and the public schools just don’t seem to go hand in hand.”

“These numbers suggest it’s not just a couple of pockets of concern,” he said.

The number may partly reflect a string of scandals that have roiled Maryland school systems.

Prince George’s County came under fire last year for inflated graduation rates and large pay raises to top aides, while the former superintendent of Baltimore County schools went to jail for not disclosing consulting income, including from a company awarded a no-bid contract.

Hogan has drawn attention to the issue, too. As schools opened for classes in September, he issued an executive order creating an office of education accountability to field concerns related to procurement, grade fixing, abuse and other issues.

“There is a persistent and alarming lack of accountability in local school systems across the state,” the governor said.

The issue did not resonate with every voter.

Ledia Rosario, 46, a mother of two in Prince George’s who works in health care, said she had not focused on corruption as an issue but thought security improvements and additional academic programs would make schools better.

Rosario rated her county’s schools as average. “I think probably more could be done,” she said.

In all, 61 percent of parents say overcrowded classrooms are a problem, 46 percent cite low test scores and 49 percent point to overtesting as problems in their county’s public schools.

Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, pointed out that despite parent interest, none of the issues was central in gubernatorial campaigning.

“I’m struck that there doesn’t seem to be a lot [from candidates] to address the concerns that parents have,” Deckman said.

The issue of classroom crowding resonated widely in interviews with parents. Several pointed to the benefits of smaller classes and more individualized attention for students. They worried about their schools filling up or exceeding capacity.

The poll finds a large gender gap on this question, with 56 percent of mothers saying overcrowded classrooms are a major problem, compared with 36 percent of fathers.

“There’s so much building in our area,” said Diane Hill, 37, a stay-at-home mother of two and independent voter in Anne Arundel County, noting that the topic has come up often in her mothers group. “It’s build, build, build. There’s only so many ­places for the kids to go.”

Paul Gani, 50, a federal employee and Democrat from Howard County, had twin concerns: crowding in schools and the frequency of student testing.

“I can’t help but notice how often my daughter is taking standardized tests,” he said. “It’s a big waste of time where they aren’t learning anything.”

Maryland plans to do away with its state standardized tests — called PARCC exams — and is looking to replace them with shorter, less disruptive assessments.

Students get so many standardized tests, “they don’t really take them that seriously,” said Joseph Lutz, 38, a marine terminal operator and father of four who lives in Baltimore County and is an independent voter. “The test scores are low because kids don’t care about the results,” he said.

Lutz also voiced concern about how crowding affects class sizes in elementary and middle schools. “The smaller the classes, the better,” he said.

Others talked more broadly about education, focusing on student learning and readiness for life after high school.

“I think education is huge because it’s broken,” said Beth Graeme, 41, a mother of four who owns a photography studio in St. Mary’s County and described herself as a moderate Republican. Her eldest child, a recent high school graduate in Charles County, was not well-prepared for the working world, she said.

“I feel like he was just pushed through,” she said. “He said high school was a joke.”

The Post-U. Md. poll, conducted by telephone among a random sample of 870 Maryland residents, including 814 registered voters and 210 parents. The sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for registered voters and 8.5 points among the sample of parents.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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