The recently released results showing how Harford County Public Schools did on the Maryland High School Assessment tests, on the whole, show local public schools are what they've been for many years: very effective.

A closer look quickly reveals the school system's most glaring imperfection, again something that's been in place for many, many years: an east-west divide that separates the merely good schools from the very good schools. It's important to keep in mind that all of the county's public schools provide fine educational opportunities, but, the ones to the west of I-95, in aggregate, perform at a higher level than the ones to the east. Importantly, all of the schools produce top tier scholars.


The ones on the east side, however, face challenges that are more difficult to overcome than the schools to the west. While there are plenty of reasons for the divide, there are a few key contributing factors that are interrelated.

The bulk of the population to the west of I-95 consists of people who have moved to the area from elsewhere and purchased homes built mostly in the last 40 years. As an area that's relatively newly settled, a relatively small portion of its population is economically disaffected. Historically, children from economically disaffected communities don't do as well in school as those from more economically stable situations.

Prior to the 1950s – before there was an I-95 – the population center was on the eastern side of Harford County, centered around Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and Edgewood. These communities grew in part because of the rail and road transport routes along the east side, but to a large degree because of the establishment of Aberdeen Proving Ground and the former Edgewood Arsenal. These population centers remain substantial, and they are well-established, so they have the array of economic backgrounds more common to well-established communities.

In addition, the east side became the site of low income housing initiatives in the late 1960s and early 1970s and many of the resulting neighborhoods remain.

Over the long haul, the same sort of economic evolution can be expected to affect western Harford County. Evidence of such a transformation already can be seen in some of the older areas of western Harford, notably in some of Bel Air's older neighborhoods.

It's worth reiterating that a substantial portion of the population growth in Harford County can be attributed directly or indirectly to Aberdeen Proving Ground, which has long since taken over the old Edgewood Arsenal.

The post remains one of Maryland's biggest employers. Government contractors directly associated with the post also are important employers. And there are many other businesses that benefit directly from having so many government and government contractors living in the area.

It's not, however, all wonderful. Historically, military installations have also attracted an undesirable element known in ages past by the rather nondescript term camp followers. Consisting largely of grifters, drifters and strumpets, these camp followers are disruptive to established communities, but also are a fixture of military life that no one has yet figured out how to excise.

Which brings us back around to a potentially effective way of dealing with Harford's east-west disparity on the High School Assessment tests: increasing federal installation Impact Aid and re-evaluating how Harford County Public Schools spend that money.

At present, federal aid to Harford schools accounts for less than 5 percent of the total school budget, and Impact Aid, the program designed to mitigate the effect of large military installations on local school systems, is only a portion of this roughly $20 million total.

For Impact Aid to truly have an impact on education, it needs to be increased substantially. Unfortunately, given the federal government's status in recent years, such logic is likely to fall on deaf ears.

In Harford County, federal Impact Aid historically has been allocated not to programs directed at schools in close proximity to APG, but funneled into the general fund. The logic has been that, while the post is closest to east side schools, all the schools take in children of post staff. The reality, however, is the higher ranking folks are more likely to move to the west, and the most disaffected people in the communities closest to the post aren't likely to have any true connection to the military.

For Impact Aid to have any meaningful effect, it probably needs to be allocated to programs that would help the economically disaffected people who live near the military installations. This could be done locally, but it remains to be seen if there will ever be any action on that front.

In the meantime, it's acceptable to celebrate the success of our kids on the HSAs, as long as we keep in mind that our kids living west of I-95 have a better go of it than our kids living on the east side.