Challenging schools

May 10, 2007

As thousands of families pour into Maryland in the next few years as a result of the military base realignment and closure (BRAC) plans, where they choose to live is likely to be heavily influenced by what local school systems have to offer. The latest wave of newcomers will include a higher proportion of civilians, who are more amenable to commuting, making their impact on specific communities much less predictable.

That's why the state needs to give school districts additional flexibility in building or renovating schools, with perhaps more priority and funding given to BRAC-related school projects. The state should also be prepared to spend more to expand course offerings and to hire more teachers and other school staff.

Although most of the employment impact from BRAC is expected around Fort Meade, Aberdeen Proving Ground and Bethesda Naval Hospital, state planners figure that at least eight school districts, including Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties, will be most significantly affected. The biggest concern is to ensure that schools have adequate and appropriate physical space. When St. Mary's County absorbed new students because of military changes in the early 1990s, existing school buildings were modernized and upgraded to expand capacity.

For the latest BRAC influx, some counties have already made sensible plans. But legislative changes may be needed to allow more flexibility in the cumbersome capital improvement process when districts need to respond quickly to BRAC-related demand. Districts that end up absorbing more students should be considered for additional priority state funding.

Beyond infrastructure needs, some districts are encouraging more students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, and pointing them toward jobs that are being generated by the military as well as the business community. State education officials have wisely invested in developing pre-engineering and other courses that are considered pathways to similar college courses and to careers.

Another wise and crucial investment will be to expand programs and incentives to ensure that there are enough qualified teachers to prepare the anticipated influx of students. Demand for teachers in Maryland already exceeds supply, so officials will have to be more aggressive and creative in offering training opportunities and financial incentives to persuade more young people to go into teaching and more professionals to switch careers.

The latest BRAC effort presents a challenge to school districts and the state that should be met with vision and enthusiasm.

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