Flight from public classrooms Private, home education rise curious in a place noted for good schools.

March 20, 1997

PARENTS ELSEWHERE might be shocked to learn that private school enrollment is booming in Howard County, typically regarded as having one of the best public education systems in Maryland. Isn't Howard the place where families are supposed to get private-quality education without shelling out thousands for tuition?

Howard also finds it is not immune to the home-schooling trend sweeping the country -- 1.2 million American children have parent-teachers.

County parents offer many reasons for sending their children to private schools or teaching them at home: to avoid classrooms of 20 to 35 students; to expose their children to religion during the school day; to flee a popular culture they view as increasingly degenerate; to shield their children from swearing in the hallways, and to ensure better discipline.

Many private schools and home-schooling parents succeed famously in all of the above, and are sound reasons for seeking alternatives to public schools. Another reason, however, may be that parents are fleeing heterogeneous environments, as Patti Caplan, the county schools' spokeswoman, suggested. "That's one of the unspoken things," she says. That would be unfortunate. Preventing children from interacting with kids from different backgrounds could widen the gulf of misunderstanding among social and ethnic groups.

But homogeneity is becoming a myth of private education. If parents are seeking an exclusive environment, they may be surprised at the increasing diversity in these classrooms. The 100 schools that belong to the Association of Independent Maryland Schools have a minority enrollment of 17.4 percent, thanks to efforts over the years to diversify Baltimore-area private schools. Almost 5 percent of the 34,500 students at these schools receive financial aid.

Another myth shattered: Private schooling does not guarantee academic success. A Johns Hopkins study has found that private and public students from similar backgrounds have nearly identical standardized test scores.

Nonetheless, public schools have taken a very public beating in recent years. In Howard County, the growth of private schools may be traced to resulting perceptions, not all of them true or healthy.

` Pub Date: 3/20/97.

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