THIS SCHOOL SYSTEM is so decentralized that it's inaccurate to call it a system. It eliminated its board of education years ago. Its entire central office staff -- from superintendent to secretaries -- would fit in a 10-passenger van.
It's the schools of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Consider this: Harford County public schools enroll roughly the same number of students as the nine-county archdiocese.
Yet Harford has half the number of schools, spends twice as much on each student and has a central office staff nine times larger.
The reason for the huge discrepancy in administration, of course, is that the Catholic schools are run by their own school boards and local administrators. It's an arrangement public school people praise extravagantly but never come close to imitating.
Not that Catholic schools Superintendent Ronald J. Valenti is idle. For one thing, in matters religious, the Catholic schools are highly centralized. Dr. Valenti answers to Cardinal William H. Keeler. Beyond him there's a bigger boss (visiting Baltimore today), and beyond him a still Bigger Boss.
But in matters educational, the parochial schools are "semi-independent," said Dr. Valenti. The archdiocese, for example, rewrote the elementary school curriculum this year. Local schools adapted the course of studies to their own circumstances, the superintendent said. Similarly, there are teacher salary guidelines considerably below those of public school instructors.
"We hope, of course, that most schools can exceed the guidelines," the superintendent said, "but 80 percent of our budgets go to salaries and other compensation. We're forced to do more with less."
In the Catholic Center on Cathedral Street downtown, Dr. Valenti has four assistants, each assigned a quarter of the
archdiocese's 102 schools; a marketing director; a "child nutrition" director; three secretaries and a clerk.
In Harford's central offices in Bel Air, Superintendent Ray R. Keech presides over a bureaucracy of 64 professionals -- assistant superintendents, numerous supervisors, executive directors, curriculum specialists, transportation and food services chiefs.
(Harford is no more bureaucratic than any other public system in Maryland. In fact, in this space Oct. 1, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick praised Harford for getting "a lot of bang for the buck.")
In Aberdeen, Sister Ann Therese, principal of St. Joan of Arc School, bragged one day last week about her school's new computer lab.
Staff and students at the school raised the money for the equipment by working at McDonald's, saving supermarket receipts and selling candy.
It's that sense of community, combined with the morals and values imparted by Catholic schools, that commend them to parents and to educators and school researchers.
Mary Green, for example, is sending her two children to St. Jane Frances School in Pasadena for a total of just under $3,000, about half the taxpayers' cost of educating one student in Anne Arundel County public schools.
"I just think they do a better job," she said. "The teachers don't make as much, but they're more dedicated, and they teach values. The downfall of the public schools was when they took away prayer."
Ms. Green, who grew up in South Baltimore, attended parochial schools, as did her father. She said she never considered public schools for her children. But more public school parents are switching.
Enrollment in archdiocesan schools has been increasing in the 1990s after a 25-year slide. There are waiting lists in Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Frederick counties. (Twenty-three percent of archdiocesan students are non-Catholic, and the Catholics operate several city schools that are totally or predominantly non-Catholic.)
A number of researchers charge that public schools are hobbled by what one called "that thick external layer of constraints and policies."
A recent study by the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools found that American public education is plagued by inefficiency. The United States, for example, requires more non-teachers to carry out central-office mandates than most other industrialized nations, according to the report.
"Although our education system is presumably decentralized," the report said, "the U.S. ranks next to last among 13 industrialized nations in the number of decisions delegated to the school level and has by far the largest percent delegated to the district level."
St. Joan of Arc's principal has to worry more about meeting the suggested archdiocesan salaries than carrying out central-office mandates. Only two of her school's staff of 20 are nuns, a ratio that prevails across the archdiocese and among Catholic schools nationwide, where the proportion of religious teachers has dropped from 65 percent to 10 percent since 1965.
This means that schools like the 42-year-old St. Joan of Arc, which had no tuition at all until the 1960s, have had to increase their charges to pay the higher salaries of lay instructors.
Still, by pinching pennies, fund-raising and relying in most cases on parish subsidies, the archdiocesan schools have been able to hold elementary school tuitions to the $2,000-to-$3,000 range.
Public school proponents point out that private schools do not have to enroll all students; they can reject troublemakers or students requiring special services.
"It's true that public schools have to be more coercive because people don't volunteer to attend," said Roger Shouse, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University who studies the relationship of schools and communities.
"But there is another side. Coleman [James Coleman, the late Johns Hopkins and University of Chicago sociologist] and others have suggested that Catholic schools do a better job with marginal students, many of whom have been pushed out of the public schools."
"We can learn from Catholic schools," Dr. Shouse said. "I've looked at data for about 400 schools across the country, public and private . . . and they suggest that there is a Catholic advantage.
"Much of it is accounted for by the sense of community in Catholic schools and what I call the 'academic press' -- the degree of emphasis on succeeding academically."