When Principal Robert Skinner watches a class of 30 students enter the Hammond Elementary School media center -- a small throng that troops in four times a day -- he knows that his school in Columbia will be able to provide the books, magazines, computers and slide-show materials the students need.

"Students only buy their own pencils when they come to school here," Skinner said. "We don't get everything we want but we do get the things students need for a good education."

Unlike many nearby districts facing budgetary contraints, Howard County is far outspending its neighbors for instructional materials for students at all levels and tops the state average for spending in textbooks and library materials, according to a recent survey by the Maryland Department of Education and the Department of Fiscal Services.

Spending for books and other course materials has grown steadily during the past five years, allowing Howard to bypass even nearby Montgomery County in the amount of money it spends for each child in its school population of 24,256, one of the smallest of the Maryland counties surrounding metropolitan Washington. That spending level is linked by some to a higher cost of books, while others say it stems from a strong commitment by the school board and community to provide quality education.

Educators in Howard County and elsewhere in the state, when talking about the figures, point out that 83 percent of the adults in the county hold high school diplomas. About 39 percent hold college degrees. Those census figures top state and national averages by more than 17 percentage points and reflect a population that acknowledges a need for quality education and what a teacher needs to produce it, educators say.

"A lot of this has to do with the philosophy of the school system, the people who live in the community and where they decide to put their money," said Kathie Hiatt, a specialist for financial reporting with the state education department.

According to the state report, Howard County spent $70.54 on instructional materials for each student in its school district in 1979, a figure that was high but comparable to what Anne Arundel, Charles, Montgomery and Prince George's counties were spending on the same kinds of materials.

In 1983, the disparity had grown to significant proportions. Howard County spent $104.03 on each child, surpassing Montgomery's $78.16 per child by about $26. Prince George's County, which recently passed a referendum that will allow more taxes to be collected for education and other services, spent the least of the five outlying counties, $44.04 per child.

County and state educational officials were quick to point out that instructional expenses fluctuate from year to year, depending on the needs of each particular school district. Montgomery County, has had computer systems in every high school media center for the past three years, finds it is "much, much better off than many school districts" across the nation, said Frances Dean, director for instructional resources.

But counties that have seen a continuing low level, such as Prince George's, acknowledged that a dearth of dollars can hurt the quality of education.

"The best teachers in the world need effective materials to work with," said Louise Waynant, assistant superintendent for instruction and pupil services in Prince George's. "I think the lack of funds for instructional materials has meant students have not had as many or as current resources as we would like."

The push for increased spending in instructional materials is clear in a five-year look at Howard County. From 1979 to 1983, the increase was steady from $70.54 to $104.03. Inflation in the schoolbook publishing industry -- a rate that Howard County staff estimated at 7 to 8 percent a year -- accounted for some of that expense. Another big item was an ambitious five-year plan that began in 1983 to install dozens of Apple computers at every school.

At the end of the five years, each of the 25 elementary schools will have 23 computers, each of the 10 middle schools will have 28 computers and each of the eight high schools will have 45. Projected expenditures to buy the machines this year is $370,000, with the total cost of the project, just for buying the machines, expected to top $1.25 million.

The drive to improve instructional materials in Howard County began in the early 1970s as officials began building more schools to keep up with a population surge created in the planned city of Columbia. John C. Murphy, a school board member for the past 10 years and its current chairman, said community support and concern over text materials grew to such a level that the county began a systematic review of texts and new material five years ago.

"The whole issue of acquisition of computer materials follows what we think has been a fairly aggressive attitude toward education here," Murphy said. "We have a real interest in making an effort to offer what are innovations in education to our students. There's a lot of community involvement with our schools and we are asking all the time for community input on specialty areas."