Schools and suburbia

March 31, 1994

It was a scene that only suburbia could appreciate: A gymnasium packed full of animated parents arguing before the Harford County school board on why their children should not be made to attend a brand new school.

The scene at Bel Air's Ring Factory Elementary School the other night was surreal, bizarre and maybe a bit selfish against the backdrop of Baltimore City's horrendous school problems. The Harford forum was basically a local school boundary dispute, but the emotions of 250 people who came out on a rainy night, some carrying placards or wearing buttons in support of their causes, belied the security so often associated with suburban life.

In a nutshell, the families involved like Ring Factory, one of Harford's better elementaries in terms of state test scores, and fear being sent to another school, even a spanking new one. In other ways, though, this is a story being played out all around Baltimore. A well-to-do Howard County neighborhood just lost a year-long battle to keep from being redistricted from that county's best high school into a more troubled one. Anne Arundel County is poised to shift pupils to underused schools in a systemic redistricting -- a change it has tried unsuccessfully to accomplish for a generation. Baltimore County, too, is dealing with frayed nerves over its popular magnet school program, with white applicants being disallowed because their transfers would worsen racial imbalance in their present schools.

As teachers voice distress over parents' inattentiveness to their children's development, all this familial angst over education could be seen in a positive light. But the apprehensions also point up a structural weakness in the suburbs as they've grown over the past half-century.

The flight of the middle class from the cities to suburbs and beyond is linked in large measure to perceptions about the public schools. If residents fear the schools where they live, they will migrate to the next county over time. These new bedroom villages have fragile roots; people have little reason to live in them aside from the quality of the services provided.

In the Harford County debate, for instance, residents were staking claims based on having moved to Bel Air in 1980, as if that were akin to their ancestors coming over on the Ark and the Dove.

Baltimore's suburbs are just starting to cope with the growth of the past 15 years that so dramatically changed them. One only had to hear the tension in the voices of people at the Ring Factory school gym to realize that life in these growing suburbs, while much different from city living, can be uncertain and tenuous in its own ways.

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