A school-by-school comparison compiled last week by the Howard County school system shows that outside Columbia, test scores and satisfaction are higher and buildings are newer. The availability of computers, however, is the same inside and outside Columbia, contrary to common assumptions.

The data were compiled in response to a growing debate over whether serious inequities exist in facilities and services at county schools.

Schools inside and outside Columbia have a technology ratio of one computer per seven students, though Columbia schools are, on average, nine years older than those outside Columbia. All but two Columbia schools, however, have had at least one renovation or addition.

Seventy-seven percent of Columbia school parents who returned surveys were satisfied with their child's school in 1997, while 82 percent of those outside Columbia were satisfied. Staff satisfaction that year was 63 percent in Columbia and 79 percent outside. And student satisfaction was virtually equal in Columbia and non-Columbia schools.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) composite scores last year averaged 56 in Columbia schools and 62 outside Columbia.

County Council Democrats held a hearing last month to hear the concerns of Columbia parents, students and staff about aging buildings, lack of computers and staff turnover. At the hearing, County Executive James N. Robey said, "It is totally unacceptable for even the perception that all our schools are not created equal."

The Democrats--C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia), Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) and Mary C. Lorsung (D-West Columbia)--were criticized for painting the situation as a geographic one. Courtney Watson, a schools activist and Ilchester Elementary parent, said after the hearing: "It's not a Columbia issue. It's a county issue. 'Columbia versus Howard County' is not the way to frame the problem."

Indeed, according to a Washington Post analysis of school system data, the numbers differ when comparing not only schools inside and outside Columbia but also old and new schools.

Schools built before 1991 have twice as many students receiving subsidized lunches (13 percent, compared with 6 percent) and slightly more minority students (29 percent, compared with 23 percent) than newer schools. The older schools had twice as many special education students (10 percent, compared with 5 percent in newer schools).

Columbia schools had higher mobility--students arriving after the school year began--than non-Columbia schools (10 percent vs. 6 percent), according to the Post analysis, and the percentage of special education students was the same. But the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches was higher inside Columbia last year than outside (17 percent vs. 8 percent), as was the percentage of minority students (39 percent in Columbia vs. 22 percent outside).

Whether comparing Columbia schools with other county schools, or older vs. newer schools, no significant differences were found in the proportion of students with limited English proficiency.

With the exception of the percentage of special education students, all of the indicators increased in Columbia since 1991--poverty has doubled. The population has changed outside Columbia, too, though not as fast, and mobility had declined between 1991 and last year.

The Democrats agreed to include council Republicans in their next meeting on inequity issues, scheduled for Nov. 8. In addition, Robey and School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey appointed an independent committee last week, led by consultant Bill Benton and Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan, to study any inequities and suggest how to address them. The committee is to report back in March.

Although complaints have been made about quality of leadership and teacher turnover in the schools, most of the concerns have been about buildings.

Joseph R. Staub Jr., president of the Howard County Teachers Association and a former high school social studies teacher, said schools can be "close geographically but worlds apart in terms of resources." He added, "The inequity between older and newer facilities . . . have been to some degree sensationalized, but they reflect valid concerns."

Still, many people say it's impossible to judge academic quality by the numbers. "No one can blame [parents] if that's important to them," Hickey said of technology and building quality, "but that's not affecting the quality of education."