Issue for the '90s: School Crowding

January 04, 1994

Snapshots from a state full of crowded schools:

* Anne Arundel County is weighing whether to revive double sessions in the Broadneck community until its high school gets enlarged.

* In Carroll County, schools with large classes of 30 students or more jumped substantially at the elementary and high school levels.

* Howard County is bracing for the state's largest boom in enrollment, projecting about a third more students just eight years from now.

* Baltimore County recently moved to disallow new homes in roughly a quarter of the county where schools are too crowded, while the County Council asked the school board to use more trailer-type classrooms as a quick fix.

Welcome to the issue of the '90s throughout suburban Maryland: School crowding. The housing and population booms that erupted in the '80s are reverberating through the schools this decade, in larger class sizes, modular classrooms and a paucity of teachers in areas such as reading and art.

Maryland recently ranked eighth in the nation in school enrollment growth. Twenty of the state's 24 school systems will have to deal with more students in the coming decade as statewide enrollment is projected to jump by 15 percent. Local requests for state aid for school construction are four times above what they were a decade ago, to about $230 million -- even though local governments now must contribute up to half )) the tab.

To accommodate more children without building so many schools, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is pushing year-round education -- sending kids to school in shifts throughout the year. Parents' reactions have ranged from reluctant to resistant. The benefits are unclear, as is the impact on the state's tourism and seasonal industries.

School overcrowding is a volatile issue because it pits three camps against one another. Suburban parents want more money for school construction. Taxpayer sentiment runs strongly against more taxes. And many educators believe more money is needed to improve poor school systems.

The governor decided to increase the school-construction pot from $60 million to $75 million after a task force concluded this long-term problem can't be patched with modular classrooms, year-round schools or other stop-gap ideas. This increase, while welcome, is too modest. Critics don't want to build schools that won't be needed in 20 years; but they fail to address the question of how to serve a generation of youngsters already here.

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