Vouchers: wrong idea, wrong place

December 13, 1993

The oft-stated claim that Howard County's school system is one of the best, if not the best, in Maryland is more than just talk.

The claim can be backed up with a variety of statistics.

Consider some of these figures from the state Department of Education:

* Howard leads Maryland jurisdictions in percentages of high school graduates who plan to go to college and who plan to attend college full-time.

* Howard has the second-lowest drop-out rate in the state -- 2 percent, more than three percentage points below the state average.

* The percentage of Howard schools with Chapter 1 programs is among the lowest in Maryland.

* Only Montgomery County spends more dollars per public school pupil than Howard. On and on it goes.

What prompts us to cite these impressive numbers is the recommendation by Howard's own Chamber of Commerce that elected officials consider enacting a school voucher program. This concept has been discussed and attempted nationwide for two decades.

The fact that it has met with little success during that period indicates how flawed an idea it is. If it has ever been taken seriously, it is as aid to poor students in inferior school systems.

Yet "poor" and "inferior" are hardly terms associated with Howard schools and their pupils. So what could chamber leaders be thinking?

Their suggestion was made in a "white paper" submitted to Howard legislators as they prepare for the 1994 General Assembly session. After releasing the report, chamber officials were quick to say the voucher proposal is just something for the politicians to kick around.

Kick it? They ought to stomp it, along with any other muddle-headed schemes that come their way.

School Superintendent Michael Hickey and County Executive Charles Ecker are among the officials who see big problems in giving public funds to families so they can send their kids to private schools.

Mr. Ecker rightly voices the concern that such an arrangement would penalize lower-income families who wouldn't be able to afford private schools even with vouchers.

By no means should Howard's school system expect to coast on its reputation. It must try to keep improving. But vouchers aren't the way to do it.

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