So Why Howard? Kids, That's Why


April 03, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

The one question that I'm asked most by friends and colleagues who don't live in Columbia -- or in Howard County, for that matter -- is: Why do I live there?

Emphasis is always on the word there, since outsiders often seem to assume that an alien spacecraft zapped us into zombies before kidnapping us for some queer suburban

experiment. The supposition is that I and my neighbors are paying a lot more, in terms of land and property, for a lot less than we would pay elsewhere in the Baltimore area.

And they are absolutely right.

Howard countians, particularly those of us who live in Columbia, think of acreage as anything with a point in front of it -- such as .16 of an acre. With what I pay for a relatively small four-bedroom house in Columbia, I could buy a sizable, fully renovated, turn-of-the-century colonial somewhere else. Besides, the architecture of old homes appeals to me more than almost anything in Columbia, where nothing is more than 25 years old.

What then, is so great about Howard County? I've tried to answer the question in many ways over the years. The good schools, the parkland, the recreational facilities would be some of my responses.

But if I were to boil all the reasons down to one, it would have to be that Howard County cares about kids more than any place I have known.

The design of Columbia; its top-flight schools; the fact that the county, the city, the Columbia Association and a host of for-profit groups offer layers upon layers of recreational activities -- all of these things suggest a place where children are the central focus. There is no shortage of activities for wholesome enrichment.

That's why recent reports ranking Howard County first in child care in the state came as no surprise to me. Not only do Howard countians pay more than most other Marylanders for child care ** (an average of $94 a week), we pay day care providers more and we have more programs available for the number of children needing care. In many cases, parents in Howard are willing to pay day-care providers between $20 and $70 more a week than providers receive in Montgomery County, Howard's perennial competitor.

There are two ways of looking at these numbers. One is that relatively high overhead and the demand for services in a community with a large number of two-income families drives up the costs of child care. This approach leaves room for some healthy skepticism about the quality of services matching the price.

In fact, this newspaper expressed some of those doubts in a recent editorial noting that the March issue of Working Mother magazine ranked Maryland among the top 10 states based on availability, affordability, quality and safety of care.

"The sad fact, though, is that even a Top 10 state can fall short of providing enough top-notch child care," the editorial (which I did not write) pointed out, and I agree.

High marks are no reason to rest on one's laurels, and well-regulated day care that seeks the highest standards should always be the goal. But let's not ignore the other side of the success story in Maryland, and Howard County in particular. I am convinced from personal experience and all that I've heard from others that the quality of day care -- a much more subjective attribute -- is better in Howard County because we pay more. More to the point, parents in Howard demand more and are willing to pay for it.

Look at the benchmarks:

Maryland, with a combination of state and federal funds, spends an average of about $3,600 a year for each child in subsidized day care.

Meanwhile, without assistance, the average Maryland resident pays $4,721 per child for care.

In Howard County, the average is $5,989 a year.

The results from such expenditures can be seen, in part, by looking at how youngsters in the county fare on a host of standardized tests once they are out of day care and in the public schools. Again, Howard ranks consistently at the top.

I consider the day care that my own children attended from age two through kindergarten to have been the best investment I made in their educations. Among other things, they were reading above grade level by the time they entered first grade and hit the ground running.

It is not by accident that Howard parents are considered a snarly, demanding bunch. The high cost of living here may not get you more land or a bigger house. But if you push enough, you can get darn near the best child care in the country.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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