- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

When it comes to devising inventive ways to use taxpayer time to lobby the state for more money, the teachers unions and the schools in Montgomery and Prince George’s County are unsurpassed. In P.G. County, schools will be closing two hours early on Monday so that teachers can attend a rally for the Thornton plan, a multiyear funding initiative enacted two years ago that will provide $1.3 billion in additional money for Maryland public schools through 2008. And, as this newspaper reported last Friday, Montgomery County schools are encouraging students to earn community-service credits by participating in the rally with their teachers. According to a message that appeared on the county public school system Web site, students can receive credit for two hours of community service by attending the rally.

Under a measure approved by the State Board of Education in 1992, county students are required to perform community service as a graduation requirement. “Community service” is defined by local school districts. In Montgomery County, students are required to perform 60 hours of community service, including “advocacy” work, which “involves activities which provide opportunities for students to lend their voices and talents to correct a problem or an injustice.”

In 2000, two Walter Johnson High School students were able to meet the community-service requirement by performing clerical work for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Capitol Hill-based organization that favors the legalization of marijuana.

This time, the school system and teachers union political advocacy types are mobilizing county students to head to Annapolis to lobby Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the General Assembly in favor of the Thornton plan. Mr. Ehrlich (who quite rightly opposes efforts by Democrats in the legislature to force him to increase taxes ) — has said that, given the General Assembly’s refusal to approve slot machines, he has no choice but to reduce funding for many programs, including education — one of the largest items in the state budget. The governor proposes to increase K-12 education funding by $326 million in fiscal 2005, for a total of $3.6 billion.

So, the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), which refuses to let this “injustice” stand, is using its Web site to mobilize students to come to Annapolis to lobby and get their course credits. It tells students that they can contact unions and advocacy organizations like the Montgomery County Education Association and the local PTA if they need transportation to Annapolis.

Something has gone badly wrong here. Certainly, anyone who wants to lobby their elected officials on their own time and their own dime is free to do so. But the main focus of the public schools should be equipping students with basic skills in areas like reading and mathematics. To the extent that a “public service” requirement should exist in the schools at all, it should be limited to genuine charitable works, such as working in a nursing home or a hospital — not political advocacy. Using the lure of academic credit to bribe public school students to become good, little political commissars, a la MCPS, is the wrong way to go.

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