Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Economic Engine of Maryland, Part Six

How important are Montgomery County’s schools to the county’s economy? We asked some of our local leaders and here is what they said.

Valerie Ervin
County Council Member, Chair of the Council’s Education Committee
Former Member, Board of Education

Many people who move to the area make a conscious decision to come to Montgomery County because of the reputation of the Montgomery County Public School System. Most residents are proud of the school system and its tradition of excellence. In the current economic downturn, we cannot afford to be short-sighted about education funding.

The Montgomery County School System helps drive the economic engine of the county and the state because its reputation for excellence translates into higher property values and its brand draws both residents and businesses to the county. The quality of the school system is especially important for middle class families who want to give their children the best education possible in a public school setting.

When competing for state dollars, Montgomery County is often portrayed as the city on the hill, where there are no challenges or issues affecting residents. Montgomery County must begin to describe the variety of issues impacting its schools and the lives of its children—we are talking about everything from students arriving at the school house door with interrupted educations, those who cannot speak English, and even those who are transferring from private to public schools because their parents can no longer carry the financial burden.

We need to continue to advocate for full funding for our schools to retain and keep our outstanding teachers, who work tirelessly for our students, and to fund school construction projects to maintain class size. Now is not the time to retreat from our obligations. As one of the main drivers of Maryland’s economic engine, the state has a stake in our continued success. Turning back the clock now hurts all of us.
Nancy Navarro
County Council Member
Former President, Board of Education

It is important that the rest of the state understands that, like County Executive Ike Leggett likes to say, Montgomery County is not an ATM machine to be accessed at will. It is important for the state to understand that an economically viable Montgomery County is in the best interest of the state as a whole. Montgomery County Public Schools is in turn the crown jewel of our county; our economic fortunes are intricately tied to the fortunes of MCPS. A distressed school system spells doom for our economy as we witness the flight of individuals, families and businesses to more education friendly jurisdictions like Fairfax County. This would affect local revenues and in turn would affect the state's collection from Montgomery County. In summary, a demand that the state maintains its fiscal obligation to Montgomery County is not self-serving - it is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do in the interest of the state of Maryland.
George Leventhal
County Council Member

I think the generally-perceived high quality of Montgomery County schools help to make the county very competitive if businesses are considering locating here versus Prince George’s County or the District of Columbia. Versus Fairfax County, not so much. Fairfax County also has a very strong school system. I personally prefer living in Montgomery County, but I am not confident that statistics would support the assertion that it is more attractive to locate a business here than Fairfax County.

Montgomery elected officials and residents need to consider very carefully whether being competitive with Fairfax in economic development is something that we want. There are certainly benefits to having a healthy tax base and job base. On the other hand, more business can translate to more traffic and construction of more housing, and those things are not popular. We seem to have contradictory impulses when it comes to attracting business. Our political culture often rewards those who are hostile to business. We may have taken for granted that Montgomery County will always be attractive to investors, and we may find that is not as true as we once thought. In the current constrained economic environment, we are finding out what “slow growth” really feels like.
Finally, one of our most intelligent (and most secretive) informants had this to say:

Both Maryland and Montgomery County are unfriendly to business interests. It’s not just that the county and state are high tax and stiff regulatory environments; those are bad enough. Worse, there is a prevailing air that business, in and of itself, is inherently suspect. In a highly regulated environment, decision-making is in the hands of a relative few, a small number of politicians and regulators. There is a wrongheaded assumption that government, simply because of who and what it is, will automatically make the best, fairest decision on behalf of the people. The more regulated an environment is, and the more decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few, the more political the process is apt to be.

Two things keep Maryland and Montgomery County afloat: federal largesse, due to proximity to the Nation’s Capital and research funding (NIH, Hopkins, FDA, etc), and education. There is nothing else to fall back on. We’re a two-legged stool. The education level of the workforce in this area is very high and is indeed an asset to business. If that is damaged, we’re in deep trouble. Suddenly, Maryland becomes even less competitive than it already is against Virginia and others with a more friendly business environment. We’re teetering on the brink. The county and state already have damaged the business environment, and without educational support, people will rightly ask: Why should I go to an area with high cost and traffic congestion and high regulation, when there are other areas, like North Carolina, with a lower cost of living, less traffic and more openness and creativity? We need to stop thinking we’re so much smarter than everyone else and start competing more effectively.
Montgomery County is the economic engine of Maryland, and part of what enables that engine to keep up with Fairfax is the quality of our public schools. In Part Seven, we will look at how the state contributes to Montgomery’s schools.