Doesn't make sense to shortchange schools


May 10, 1998|By Harold Jackson

NOT ALL schools are equal. I didn't learn that until 1970 in Birmingham, Ala. That was when Samuel Ullman High School was closed the summer before my senior year there was to begin.

About half its students were sent to Parker High, which, like Ullman, was predominantly black. Most of the rest were assigned to Ramsay High, which in the past seven years had gone from being all-white to almost all-white.

Moaning and groaning -- as opposed to kicking and screaming -- I was sent to Ramsay. Among the handful of African-Americans who weren't students there for the first time were some I had known in elementary school.

With Ramsay's population suddenly racially split about 50-50, these pioneer black students stood out. They were smarter than we new immigrants. Not more intelligent, but smarter.

Not a bad school

The difference was the education they had received as opposed to what we had been taught at Ullman. Now I don't mean to suggest Ullman was a bad school. Its graduates were admitted to some of the best colleges and universities. Many went on to stellar professional careers. Indeed, one is now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But, in my senior year, I discovered my Ullman education was deficient.

I was ticked when that became apparent. In trigonometry class, in physics class, guys I considered academic equals in elementary school were now doing better than I was. When a teacher suggested that I ask one of these smirking classmates for help, I was insulted.

In that instant, I understood the deficiencies of my previously separate and unequal education. Without the same books and resources as Ramsay, Ullman had provided me a good education, but not a great education.

I am reminded of that as Howard County considers what type of education it wants its children to have. Will our schools merely be good or do we dare strive for greatness? Next year's school budget may determine the difference.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker wants to give the schools $9 million less than what education administrators believe is needed. The schools won't fall apart without the additional funding. But it will become increasingly difficult to provide the high-quality education that has prompted so many families to move here.

Howard County student test scores typically lead the state. Its teachers have been called among the best in the nation. But, let's be honest, Howard schools have benefited from the homogeneity and affluence of their charges. As the student population continues to grow, it will also become more diverse. That diversity creates challenges.

Howard schools today have more students who speak English as a second language, more students whose poverty qualifies them for free lunches, more students who didn't learn the basics in grade school, more students who are disruptive, more students who need special attention.

Yet, at a time when the school system needs more money to serve not just these but all students, the schools are being told they can't have it.

The county executive is making a big deal about giving the schools an $11 million increase in funding. But that increase does not make up for budget cuts that the school system had to endure during the recession a few years ago.

That $11 million won't cover both the $7 million in local public education funding required by state law and a nearly $9 million pay raise recently granted to county teachers. That $11 million won't pay for any new programs needed to serve the growing student population.

The County Council could restore the school board's full budget request, a total of about $205 million. But the three Republicans on the five-member council seem to be sticking with their fellow party member, Mr. Ecker, who is in his final term.

It's an election year, and maybe that's the reason the GOP council members -- two of them running to succeed Mr. Ecker -- are afraid to disagree with a man whose name in Howard County is synonymous with fiscal responsibility.

But they risk more politically by agreeing to a tax cut at the same time they are saying no more money is available for schools.

The income tax cut proposed by Mr. Ecker would save each taxpayer about $50. That's not enough to change anybody's lifestyle. But increasing the education budget could have a lasting impact on all our lives.

Chance for greatness

If education funding isn't improved, the schools will eventually be overwhelmed by increasing challenges. Good schools will become bad schools without ever having the chance to become great. Families will leave Howard County when that happens.

Mr. Ecker was once an education administrator. He and school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey have argued in the past over what it takes to run successful schools. With this, his final budget, Mr. Ecker seems intent on getting the last word. It's not what many of us want to hear.

Harold Jackson is The Sun editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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