Teach MD questionnaire reveals MoCo candidates’ stances on important community issues.
This article is the first in a series in advance of the upcoming primary elections. In addition to providing an analysis of responses to the Orthodox Union’s (OU) candidate questionnaire, we will also cover responses a future candidate questionnaire and provide background on the elections at the state, local, and federal levels.
Traffic congestion, economic growth, and education are the top priorities of most candidates currently running for office in Montgomery County, according to a candidate questionnaire administered by Teach Maryland (Teach MD) earlier this year. Nearly all candidates who responded also said they support security funding for nonpublic schools and universal free pre-kindergarten.
A project of the Orthodox Union, Teach MD recently released the candidates’ answers in full in advance of the June 26 primary elections.
“We are very grateful for the time that the candidates took to respond and the thoughtfulness of the responses,” said Teach MD co-chair Sam Melamed. “Our community’s voters will be empowered with clear and concise perspective on how the candidates approach issues that impact our community.” Melamed encouraged everyone to read the candidate responses (which will be posted soon at http://teachadvocacy.org) and then reach out to the candidates directly.
To boost economic and wage growth, candidates said they will make the county government more business-friendly, improve information-sharing with businesses (such as on road closures), and support job training programs (often through the county’s community college system).
Free Universal Pre-K
To improve education, candidates said they want to hire more teachers, build more school buildings, and expand early childhood education. Indeed, of the 30 candidates who responded to the questionnaire, 27 said they support creating a free universal pre-kindergarten program (UPK) that uses both public providers (i.e., public schools) and private providers (i.e., private daycares and nonpublic schools). The only concern candidates cited about UPK was the cost: With over 16,000 4-year-olds in Montgomery County, according to 2016 Census Bureau data, a UPK program could easily cost more than $160 million.
Funding Services for Low-Income and Special Needs Students in Nonpublic Schools
Should federally-funded services for low-income and special-needs students be available on-premises at nonpublic schools? Currently, the federal government pays for tutoring, therapy, and other services for struggling and special-needs students. Under federal law, these services must be made equally available to nonpublic and public school students.
However, the Montgomery County School District requires nonpublic school students to travel to a public school to access these federally-funded services. This is impractical for many day school students. One father of a struggling day school student told Kol HaBirah that their inability to access services on-premises is a key reason they withdrew their child from the Jewish school and moved to Virginia.
Seventeen of the candidates said they support making these federally-funded services available on-site at nonpublic schools. Others said they will defer to the decision of the Montgomery County school board, which sets policy for the school district. A few, who seemed to misunderstand the question, said they oppose county funding for nonpublic schools.
The Busing-Commuter Traffic Connection
Drivers in Montgomery County have some of the longest commutes in the country, and congestion seems to be getting worse. Last year, the Montgomery County Planning Department released a report saying that cars on Montgomery County roads were moving four miles per hour slower in 2015 than in 2011. Candidates’ plans for reducing traffic generally focus on a combination of public transit, road repair, and road construction investments.
In the 2014-2015 school year, the county ran a busing pilot program for six Montgomery County nonpublic schools. According to Councilmember Nancy Navarro, the county paid 78 percent of the busing costs, while the six nonpublic schools paid the remainder. However, the program was discontinued, in part because changes to public school opening times meant the buses used for the six nonpublic schools were now needed for public school students instead.
Two-thirds of the candidates said they support reinstating and expanding the county’s busing program for nonpublic schools, as it will reduce traffic congestion and pollution. Those who oppose reinstating the program cited concerns about the cost and taking resources from public schools.
According to the Maryland Department of Education, there were about 24,000 nonpublic school students in Montgomery County in 2016 (13.4 percent of all K-12 students). Given that Maryland spent an average of $759 per student on public school transportation in 2014-2015 (according to U.S. Department of Education statistics), providing school busing for all nonpublic school students could take over 12,000 cars off the road at the cost of about $18.2 million per year.
Security at Nonpublic Schools
In contrast to nonpublic school busing, nearly all of the candidates said they support security funding for nonpublic schools. Candidates generally acknowledged that the rise in hate crimes and bias incidents — up 32 percent so far this year, District 1 candidate Andrew Friedson said — means that religious schools in particular need more protection.
County Council candidate Richard Gottfried said county funding for security is not needed because the Maryland state government now provides security grants to nonpublic schools. Indeed, last year Teach MD drafted legislation creating a nonpublic school security grant program. Teach MD asked state Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk to introduce the bill, and they asked state Sen. Roger Manno to champion it. The bill swiftly passed the legislature by overwhelming majorities, and Gov. Larry Hogan has included $2 million in grant funding in this year’s budget. However, no state grants will be available to nonpublic schools until 2019 at the earliest. The legislature must approve the governor’s budget, regulations need to be drafted, and a grant solicitation process must take place before any grants are awarded.
“All state legislators and the governor, in addition to local elected officials, are up for election this year,” said Teach MD co-chair Edwin Zaghi, “and voting is the most effective way to make our voices heard.”
The vast majority of Montgomery County residents are Democrats, and Zaghi said the best time for community member to make their voices heard is by voting in the June 26 primary election. Whichever Montgomery County candidates win the Democratic primary will have a significant — perhaps unassailable — advantage in the Nov. 5 general election.
In the coming days, the full candidate responses will be made available at https://teachadvocacy.org.
By Gabe Aaronson