BEGINNING A genuine effort to improve education should be the first item on the agenda in Anne Arundel County for 1999. The timing couldn't be better.
After last year's bruising battle over the education budget that ended John G. Gary's political career, the newly elected county officials, interested in their own survival, are focused on education. The public is also beginning to understand that improving the school system will benefit not only the children attending the schools but also the county's climate for economic development.
One of the first tasks should be to transform the school board into a more effective policy-making body. Running the school system is an immense task; the board is ill-equipped for it.
Most of the people serving have little experience with multi-million dollar budgets or complex personnel, discipline and affirmative action matters. Yet, these people determine school system policy.
This year should mark the beginning of a county-wide discussion on how to build a better board. It is unlikely that the longtime system of nominating conventions can do the job. The well-meaning activists selected through conventions of civic and religious groups may be effective on an individual school level but they aren't as able when tackling system-wide issues.
A new system must ensure that thoughtful and effective business, professional and community leaders are appointed to the board. The governor, in consultation with County Executive Janet S. Owens, should expand the search to identify people with experience managing large enterprises or supervising large numbers of people. These board members also need a demonstrated understanding of public policy and administration.
Ms. Owens, elected on a promise to work cooperatively with the school board, should not expect complete compliance. Her goal should be to have a responsible group that understands its obligations not only to the school system but to the county government.
Working together, the county executive and board should be able to fashion budgets that address difficult issues -- including not only adequate funding for instructional programs but the money needed to repair dozens of old schools.
Equally important is that the board, superintendent and county executive jointly develop a long-range plan that produces improvements in student performance. There is no reason Anne Arundel's students cannot perform at the same level as students in much higher-achieving Montgomery or Howard counties. Superintendent Carol S. Parham has committed herself to this goal.
Anne Arundel has steadily improved its scores in the Maryland Schools Performance Assessment Program over the past four years. But performance in middle schools remains dismal. As many as one-third of county students don't maintain a C-average. These problems carry into high school.
Last summer, a county Task Force on Student Achievement called for programs to make middle schools more demanding. This is the year to implement some of those recommendations, such as setting performance standards in math and verbal skills.
This also should be the year that the school system reduces class size, particularly in schools with chronically poor achievement. Despite some progress, there are still too many classes where the number of students overwhelms the teacher. If more teachers cannot be hired, money should be set aside for more classroom assistants and aides.
The school system has begun to recruit the 3,250 teachers it will need in the next four years to replace retiring personnel. Yet it also must provide support, mentoring and instruction for new teachers. In too many instances, the least experienced teachers are assigned the most difficult pupils. The performance of these students will not improve unless teacher quality does, too.
Businesses, particularly high-technology and bio-engineering firms, locate in places where schools are highly regarded. Already well-situated between Baltimore, Washington and beside the Chesapeake Bay, Anne Arundel is in a position to attract such firms if it dedicates itself to improving public schools.