School vs. Parental Responsibility

June 22, 1995

Despite the nationwide cry to "get government off our backs," the public can't seem to shake its dependence on cradle-to-grave assistance. Take the Howard County families who want public bus service for their children, but who live too close to their local schools to qualify for it. As indicated in a recent survey by the county PTA Council, parents fret that the walkways their kids take to school pose dangers. The paths, argue the parents, are secluded, close to traffic or near construction sites (although an accounting of related mishaps is hard to come by.)

This was the main concern expressed by parents in the survey. In fact, it has been a recurring issue over the years. During the academic year just completed, the Howard Board of Education heard -- and denied -- several appeals for bus service in areas where elementary-grade students must walk to school. These requests ran against the county policy stating that bus rides are provided only to elementary and middle grade students who reside more than a mile from school; and to high schoolers who live more than 1.5 miles away. The school system has made exceptions to this policy but rescinded them once measures were taken -- by the county and the Columbia Association, in at least two cases -- to make walkways safer. But the government can do just so much with its limited resources. That does not include bus service for every family demanding it.

School board Chairwoman Susan Cook correctly urges cooperation between educators and parents. The schools can instruct children on precautions to take on paths, and organize walking groups led by older students. Some parents will have to become more involved, too, by taking their children to school or arranging for a neighbor or babysitter to do so. Meanwhile, the school system could reconsider its ride-or-walk guidelines. Should the youngest elementary students be made to travel by foot? It's hardly a perfect policy that has a 17-year-old walking only a slightly longer distance than a 6-year-old.

Officials also should work toward ending public bus service for 650 Catholic school pupils, which costs the county more than $200,000 a year. Using tax dollars to transport private school students is all the more unacceptable when public school students -- especially the very young -- must walk, in part because of limited funds.

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