Should Howard County parents have the right to send their children to any school in the county that has room for them?
To that question, there are many answers - and the Board of Education heard nearly all of them last night at a public hearing on the contentious issue of open enrollment.
The board is reconsidering the policy, which allows parents to send their children to under-enrolled schools as long as they provide transportation. Last year, the board placed a one-year moratorium on the popular practice to study its pros and cons. The moratorium ends in June.
Many parents and groups have grown critical of the practice, as they have discovered that more and more of the schools that the students transfer from have diverse student bodies and are in need of resources.
"The current policy undermines the school system's mission for equity," said parent Lisa Kawata of North Laurel. "Instead, it shamefully promotes racial, socioeconomic and intellectual discrimination."
But the overwhelming majority of the 90-plus parents and citizens at the hearing declared their passion for the program, which many hailed as a hallmark of freedom of choice.
William Wilson of Columbia took issue with the argument that decisions to enroll children in out-of-district schools are motivated by class and race.
"I can't speak for everyone," Wilson said, "but our open-enrollment decisions were based on our personal dealings with school staff and administrators, not race; on test scores, not economic status; on school discipline, not how many reduced-cost lunches were served."
Most speakers said they want only the right to choose where best to educate their children.
"Open enrollment allows parents to find a temporary solution to what may be a temporary problem, either in the school or in the family," said Linda Carey of Hanover.
Many parents, for example, choose to transfer their children from their neighborhood school because of unresolved conflicts with a principal or teacher. Others have day care or after schoolcare providers who live closer to another school. Some families relocate midyear, or are faced with divorce or other personal conflict
"When a public school refuses to meet families' needs, some families will opt out, either for private or home-schooling," Jack Foley of Columbia told the board "This, you may think, is not your concern. But make no mistake about who the families are that are opting for more choice. They are families who place a high priority on education. They are voters and a large part of the county's tax base. ... If you attempt to limit parental school choice, parents will create their own choices"
But Kenneth Stevens of Savage said that the reasons parents choose to enroll their children in schools outside their home districts shouldn't be given much consideration when determining what to do about the policy.
The answer, Stevens said is simple "School board policy should make it clear that the public schools in a particular district belong to, or are intended for, the children who reside in that district," he said. "I contend that the ... policy was always wrong and should be ended with all possible speed."
The board will vote on the matter at its March 22 meeting.