Open enrollment ban extended

School board allows a moratorium to continue for 2nd year

`Don't find that satisfactory'

Superintendent asks members to await review panel report

March 21, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Giving itself more time to study the popular but much debated policy, the Howard County Board of Education voted last night to continue for one year its moratorium on open enrollment.

"When we voted to have the moratorium, I knew one year would not be sufficient to gather any kind of data you need to come to any real conclusions," board member Sandra H. French said.

The 20-year open enrollment policy allows parents to send their children to any school with empty seats so long as they provide their own transportation.

Board members were reconsidering the policy because some parents and community groups have become critical of it, and school system officials said it is difficult to manage.

The board voted 4 to 1 to continue the moratorium - which halts open enrollment for a year - rather than repeal it as Associate Superintendent Maurice F. Kalin has suggested. Board member Virginia Charles voted to not continue the moratorium.

"I know a lot of the community expected us to come to some kind of closure on this tonight," board member Patricia S. Gordon said. But she and other members said they needed more time to weigh the merits and drawbacks of the practice.

Board member Laura Waters said that even though she "wants to get rid" of open enrollment, she thought it best to assess it for another year.

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke told the board it was wise to wait until an independent performance review panel examining the system finishes its work and reports its findings to the board in June.

But Charles took issue with that idea.

"I don't find that satisfactory," she said. "I am not going to put my decision on hold for the next three to four months."

Charles likened the initial one-year moratorium - instituted last school year - to "[throwing] the baby out with the bath water."

"To deny the parents the right to do this is to ignore the concerns that they have for their children," Charles said.

Howard County's policy is the most liberal in the region, giving parents the freedom each year to shop for a school.

Many parents use it because a school is near their child's day care provider. Others prefer a particular principal's style or philosophy. Some neighborhoods have used open enrollment to fill empty seats in a small school, or avoid a school they felt wasn't fulfilling their children's needs.

But critics say that more of the schools left behind tend to be older and more diverse, giving some the impression that the practice is elitist. About 1,950 students use open enrollment.

Rick Wilson was PTA president at Wilde Lake Middle School last year when parents from one neighborhood pooled their money and hired buses to take their children from the racially diverse Columbia school to the rural, more homogeneous Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

Although that incident left Wilson sour on open enrollment, he said it was a good idea the board is taking more time.

"It's a very equitable solution," Wilson said. "It appeases both camps and it allows the board and the school system to really take time to reach consensus."

Also last night, the board heard a lengthy and detailed report on high school schedules that recommended a potentially contentious change.

Phyllis Utterback, the system's supervisor of assessment, surveyed the 10 high school's students, staff and parents about the daily schedules at each school.

Four basic types of scheduling models are used in the high schools, with at least two variations. In some schools, students have a different set of classes every other day; others have the same classes daily. Some schools have 50-minute classes; others have 90. Some have the same classes all year long; others are on a semester schedule.

Utterback's report to the board suggested a committee be formed to pare the schedules down to one standard schedule.

But several of the high school principals asked the board to also take more time on this issue.

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