Will Real School System Stand Up? HOWARD COUNTY

January 19, 1993

Will the real Howard County school system please stand up?

Is it the shallow-eyed waif asking for another bowl of gruel, or the rich kid with the bow tie and the perfect part in his hair? Who could tell from the mixed signals emanating from the county school system.

Last fall, the school administration suggested that the county might have to go to double sessions or a year-round school calendar to accommodate all the youngsters attending public school in the county. This month, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey reports that "the county revenue picture is looking very good," and the county can afford an 8 percent increase in its budget for next year without a tax increase.

On some days, the system comes across as the one most of the state would die for: The county recently came out on top for the third straight time in the Maryland School Performance Tests, an assessment of the state's 24 districts. A report the other day also showed Howard to have the leanest bureaucracy of any major school system.

Yet controversy is bubbling over part of a proposed redistricting map that would shift stu-dents from Centennial High School to Wilde Lake High School, the message being that the education offered at the latter school is a wholly inferior product. (Although we believe the school system must address parental educational concerns in any such change, the fact is Wilde Lake outperforms most high schools in the state, even while its standardized test scores fall short of the other Howard high schools.)

Separating rhetoric from reality is always a difficult task, especially around budget times when the gap between the two grows in proportion to the amount of funding being sought. Bartering the argument that the Howard system is in dire straits is going to be a tough sell, however.

As Maryland's economy gets back on its feet, Howard County, having scored some business coups, is apt to be among the first to stand. And the jurisdiction's demographics -- its high levels of income, parental involvement and cultural mix -- dictate that the county would field a decent educational system if its schools were lean-tos stocked only with flint chisels and slate tablets.

Which Howard school system is the real one? It's hard to believe it's the troubled child.

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