Smart growth and smart kids


GOVERN FROM the gut, colleagues tell Parris Glendening. Forget the polls. Ignore the pundits. Heed your inner ear.

It is sound advice for a governor who midway through his first term has lurched from one controversy to another, and been ripped by Republicans and fellow Democrats alike. Only Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie had a shorter honeymoon.

The fact is, Mr. Glendening is best when he governs intuitively, such as when he criticized the part of the president's welfare-reform package that would deny aid to legal immigrants. He decried it as un-American, without awaiting a poll or worrying that the tar-and-feather crowd might deem his notion "liberal."

When he's most calculated, however, he's at his worst, such as concocting an under-funded tax cut as a sop to his business critics.

Here's hoping for the instinctive Glendening in 1997, not the contrived Glendening. When he stops to take his finger out of the wind, he sometimes hones in on problems that beg for action.

Two recent examples are his proposals on gifted-and-talented education and "smart growth," his euphemism for reducing suburban sprawl. These subjects are unrelated, except for the fact that both have been ignored and both need someone with a bully pulpit to carry them to the fore.

Gifted education, for one, is often mistaken as a perk for kids whose parents just want to brag that their progeny are in "G&T.;"

"The bumper-sticker mentality," Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, calls it. In reality, these programs are a form of special education for children who do possess inborn abilities in certain subjects, from math to music, but can have difficulty nonetheless.

Gifted learners can become so bored with school that they get turned off at a young age. Because their minds can be unfocused, they are not necessarily "teacher pleasers" and can get mislabeled as having Attention Deficit Disorder.

"A quiet crisis"

"A quiet crisis," U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called it. Johns Hopkins University's Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth, a world-class resource in our own back yard, has plenty of stories of kids who demonstrated immense talent early but dropped out because they were not challenged.

Maryland likes to fancy itself an education trend-setter. But in gifted ed, it's mediocre. It is one of only 17 states without a legislative mandate to provide help to gifted learners. Maryland spends $2 million in this area, half in Baltimore's magnet schools. Florida spends $100 million; the Carolinas, $25 million apiece; Mississippi, $16 million. Mr. Glendening's proposal to add $500,000 pales by comparison, but it's a start.

"Smart growth" is another complexity that merits attention. Like the weather, everyone complains about sprawl, throw-away communities, rampant growth, long commutes and the decay of Main Street, but no one does anything.

Unlike the weather, political leaders can do something about it -- through targeted spending on schools and roads and supporting business and residential projects to make the traditional population centers desirable again.

Ironically, the rural counties that might complain about "smart growth" have as much to gain as their metropolitan brethren. They're not happy about the migration that's undoing their country character; their own towns have suffered as tract housing mushroomed around them, and they don't have the business base to support the growth.

We can't afford to lose our cities and towns, just as we can't lose gifted learners. We need a leader attentive to those things that need saving -- his own political career not among them.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/28/96

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