Our say: New school year brings challenges, opportunities

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In a few days, we’ll officially bury 2017’s summer season and get back to the races, or, rather, the race — the one British author H.G. Wells defined 97 years ago, when he wrote that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”

Class will start in the county’s public schools for a record 82,000 students or, if you like, more than 15 percent of Anne Arundel’s population. No wonder the schools take up half the county budget and employ about 14,000, more than twice as many as the rest of county government and the city of Annapolis combined. No wonder trying to catch up with the construction and renovation backlog in the sprawling network of school buildings is one of the county’s biggest infrastructure challenges.

One difference that will be noticed this week is that high school start times will be 13 minutes later, 7:30 a.m. instead of 7:17. Even getting that small change — urged by parents brandishing accumulating scientific evidence that crack-of-dawn start times are out of sync with teenage biology — took a herculean effort by dedicated activists.

The issue, still far from resolved, makes a larger point: Public school systems are not just vital cultural institutions but huge bureaucracies in which decisions made for administrative convenience, not necessarily educational value, often get set in concrete. Parents and other government officials are frequently exasperated by the lack of responsiveness.

One outlet for that chronic frustration is to try for more responsive school governance. That’s what the county’s General Assembly delegation, after years of dithering, finally did by engineering a phased-in transition to an elected board, starting in 2018.

Anne Arundel County highlights $431 million in county-funded school construction

Meanwhile, a vacant at-large seat on the Board of Education — filled last month by the appointment of Colin Reinhard, of Linthicum — drew 23 applicants, spotlighting the widespread interest in setting the direction of the schools. We don’t know what the specific implications of this are, but we should start to find out as school board candidates declare themselves next year.

Of course, some parents are putting their hopes not in voting in new board members but in educational alternatives like the new Monarch Academy charter school in Annapolis, which will draw about 100 students each from three of the city’s most crowded elementary schools. But in spite of the Trump administration’s decision to make an advocate of charter schools and school choice the head of the Department of Education, the attitude of most Maryland politicians and administrators will keep such options limited for the foreseeable future.

Guest Column: Is shifting Anne Arundel school start times worth it?

The public schools aren’t the only game in town — this county also has top-notch private schools — but in Anne Arundel they will continue to be the main venue in which H.G. Wells’ race is run. And the unresolved issues over everything from performance gaps to social media policies shouldn’t obscure the outstanding work that goes on in all of these schools every day.

Parents certainly won’t be satisfied with everything, but they will find lots of dedicated people who care deeply about their children and about the crucial project of education — and they’ll find that the more they are involved, the better the schools get.

And to all of the schoolchildren putting on their backpacks again this week: Welcome back, you’ve got important work to do.

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