Tuition is not the pressing problem

August 27, 2006|by John Colson

I read with interest Paul Swartz's and Tom Firey's recent pieces on education in Washington County, about giving students and their families more money to pay for college. With tuitions skyrocketing, this isn't a bad idea. But, it's just the same stuff we've been hearing for 40 years. Why expect it to work now?

It won't work, because Swartz and Firey ignore the underlying problems. It's not about where we're going to get the money or helping banks make money on student loans. Here are two problems nobody wants to talk about. And, a new solution that can do more than pay some student's tuition.

Jobs - that's what it's all about. What kid who's gone off to Georgetown, Pitt, Penn State or Virginia is going to want to come back to Washington County? That degree in business or biology or accounting or computer science is pretty much worthless here.


Is that business degree going to put a kid on a fast-track for success in Washington County? That biology major would be better off being a welder here than trying to use his degree.

All those new jobs the Economic Development Commission keeps telling us about? They're in warehouses, restaurants and stores. If you're making $15 per hour, you're making $30,000 a year. That's not going to buy a house when the average price is $256,477. Washington County trails the state in every economic measure. And, we fall further behind every year.

And the job of that guy who retired after 30 years making $55,000 is going to get filled by a youngster paid $30,000 a year, with fewer health benefits and no guaranteed pension, just a 401(k) that the kid can contribute to out of his own salary.

In 2005, pay for private-sector jobs was 22.6 percent lower in Washington County than the overall state average for those same jobs. Get a job anywhere else in the state that pays $50,000 and you'll earn $38,700 in Washington County.

Think you'll make it up in cheaper housing? Wrong again. In 2005 the average cost of a house in Washington County went up 25 percent. Only Prince George's and Charles County went up more. Statewide, the average increase was only 18.2 pdercent.

Those $400,000 houses going up on Eastern Boulevard aren't for our teachers, nurses, or union guys at Mack. Those are houses for people who work "down the road" where they make enough money to afford the mortgage.

Washington County isn't getting enough new jobs, the ones we have don't pay enough and our costs are going up faster than the state average. And Swartz and Firey think that if we send kids to college they're going to want to come back here?

A "world class education" is where Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan's aiming. She's got a long way to go. About 48 percent of our kids continue school after graduation. But only 19.4 percent of 2005 Washington County high school graduates entered a four-year college. Statewide, that average is 50.8 percent. How can we hope to prosper when for every 39 kids we send off, the rest of the state sends 102? And 25.9 percent fewer of our students who go on after high school graduate in four years in their core curriculum than graduated just four years ago. Kids from Western Maryland (Washington, Allegany, Garrett) don't graduate.

Further, 44 percent of Washington County kids needed English make-up studies when they got to college. That's two times the state average. If high school graduates can't write a sentence, how are they going to succeed? Our kids don't even get a "Maryland Class Education."

In the end, teachers are paid to teach our kids. Not the Board of Education. Not the administrators. Case closed. I promised a new solution, so here goes. When we hired those 180 new teachers this year, we should have offered bonuses in their base salary because of their education.

$10,000 - base pay increase for a graduate in the top 10 percent of a top 50 (as rated by U.S .News & World Report) college.

$7,500 - base pay increase for a graduate of a top 50 school.

$5,000 - base pay increase for science and math teachers from a college outside a 50 mile radius.

$3,500 - base pay increase for any graduate of an NCAA Division 1 school.

$3,000 - base pay increase for any graduate outside a 50 mile radius

$2,500 - base pay increase for any graduate who spent a semester or more studying abroad.

Isn't it worth $180,000 a year more to get 10 percent of our new teachers from the best universities in the country?

Or, maybe we should look at the way we're paying our current teachers. Should they get raises just because they've stuck it out for 10 years? Let's reward excellence, not endurance.

People will scream that I'm not being fair. Is it fair that our kids aren't getting even a "Maryland Class Education"? Is it fair that nearly half of them have to take remedial English after they graduate from high school?

I don't know or support any candidate for the School Board. You, the voters, have to decide what you want. Changing the faces on the School Board without changing the thinking won't solve the problem. Vote for candidates who want to tackle jobs and education. Forget about the ones who just talk and talk about nothing. Vote for ideas. After all, it's your county and your kids.

John Colson is a resident of Hagerstown.

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