Mixed signals on Howard schools

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 bowtie 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 reported that the county will have to go to double shifts 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: Last fall, the county came out on top for the third straight time in the Maryland School Performance Tests, an assessment of the state's 24 districts. Moreover, a recent report showed Howard to have the leanest bureaucracy of any of the state's major school systems.

Yet controversy is gathering steam over part of a proposed redistricting map that would shift stu-dents from Centennial High School to Wilde Lake High School, driven by the perception of parents that the education offered at the latter school is a wholly inferior product. (Although we believe the school system is obligated to address parental educational concerns in any such change, we should point out that Wilde Lake outperforms most of the high schools in the state, even while its state 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 them 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 as well as its rich 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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