The enrollment boom Baby boomers' kids: Maryland projections portend need for further investment in schools.


AS THE 1996-97 school year commences tomorrow in a half-dozen Maryland counties, a new federal report on the impact of the "echo baby boom" on school enrollment underscores this state's dilemma in providing enough space for students.

Maryland has one of the fastest growing pupil populations in the U.S., the Department of Education says. Among densely populated Eastern states, only New Jersey faces a similar pinch. Maryland ranks eighth in projected growth through 2006, 11 percent, and in students added, 92,000. Its projected enrollment of 931,000 in 2006 would surpass the previous high-water mark of 920,000 students in 1971-72.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and state legislators last winter approved the largest school building budget in 20 years, $140 million. But the pressure to erect new schools and renovate older buildings will continue through the millennium. Mr. Glendening seems cognizant of this as, a year ago, he pledged a half-billion dollars for school infrastructure over four years.

The "ugly alternatives" to investment in construction and renovation, as a study committee in Anne Arundel County dubbed them, have not been met with wide approval. Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's push for year-round schools to spread the enrollment burden fizzled. School redistricting ignites a political furor at least as torrid as the T-word.

With women having babies into their 40s, schools are now teaching children and occasionally grandchildren of the same generation side by side, Education Secretary Richard Riley pointed out. Maryland's pupil population is not being driven by upwardly mobile professionals relocating for jobs, as in the '80s, but by greater international migration -- lower-income, tougher to serve -- to Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City. One glimmer of good news is that Maryland's steepest growth will shift to the high schools, where planners don't have to be as precise as in elementary districts. Also, federal projections tend to be high. The Census Bureau was off by 17,000 on its estimate for Maryland births the first half of this decade, compared with a 1,000-birth miscalculation by state planners, who are also more conservative than their federal counterparts for the rest of the '90s.

To quibble about differing projections, though, is to miss the point: Maryland does not want to repeat the mistake of overgrown, underfinanced California, where kids attend class in converted bathrooms and hallways. State officials must stay on top of this issue, for all its social and economic implications.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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