When George Howell moved his family from Washington state to Prince George's County four years ago, he chose to live in Bowie so his young daughter eventually could attend one of the county's most sought-after public high schools.

He and other parents are now furious because the county school board decided last month to move at least 66 current eighth-graders from next school year's freshman class at Bowie High School to the less crowded and lower-ranked DuVal High School in Lanham.

As a result, Howell, an engineer, said he is shopping around for a private school for his daughter, who will be a freshman in the fall.

"We believe in a public school system, but we can't believe in a system that'll move us from a performing school to a low-performing school," he said.

Prince George's parents have consistently complained about crowded schools. But given the choice between a crowded school with a solid academic reputation and one with more space but a record that is less than stellar, many parents say the choice is easy.

"I'd rather they get a decent education in a safe environment regardless of how many kids are in there," said Valerie Moskavich, a Bowie parent.

Parents living in Marleigh and Holmehurst, the Bowie neighborhoods affected by the boundary changes, have begun an effort, including a petition drive, to get the school board to reverse the decision. Last week, they sent a letter asking the State Board of Education to intervene. If that fails, some parents have said they will shift their children to private schools or even move out of the county.

The Bowie-DuVal debate highlights the challenge that Prince George's school officials face as they attempt to raise the 137,000-student system from the bottom of state rankings on standardized tests.

Parents with children in schools that draw from poor and working-class neighborhoods say they don't get the same caliber of teachers, quality of facilities or educational materials. Meanwhile, the district's middle- to upper-class parents say they don't want their children to be forced to give up any of those resources by going to lower-performing schools.

"They are two schools that have basic needs," said Mercedes Bowens, aparent of a DuVal student. "Bowie has more. A lot of things could be done for DuVal. In society, Bowie houses are more expensive than the houses this side of the world, aren't they?"

But with schools as crowded as they are -- Bowie High has 824 more students than it was built to handle -- officials say they cannot avoid shifting students around.

"Something as complex as boundary changes, there are always going to be winners and there are always going to be losers," said Prince George's schools chief Andre J. Hornsby said. "It's a business decision. We have a limited amount of space and a limited amount of transportation money."

The result is parents vying for seats in what they perceive as the best schools. "I think the parents have a perception that some high schools are better than others," said school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).

Real or imagined, there is a divide between Bowie and DuVal. At the start of this school year, Bowie High's enrollment of nearly 2,800 was made up of 52 percent black students and 40 percent white students; at DuVal, 90 percent of the nearly 1,300 students were black. At Bowie, 8.4 percent of students received free and reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty; at DuVal, it was 28.6 percent, according to State Department of Education figures. Bowie students scored 940 out of 1600 points on last year's SAT; DuVal students scored 803.

Then there are the cosmetic differences. Bowie High has a state-of-the-art performance theater and sits across from single-family homes. DuVal is a one-story building in need of renovations and is surrounded by rental communities.

Hornsby has pledged to improve the curriculum at all high schools to minimize their academic differences, and a new wing will be added to DuVal's building by 2006.

But Hornsby also has cautioned parents that they will have to put up with even more boundary changes. A projected enrollment surge could leave the county's high schools as many as 9,000 seats short by 2006, officials say. And the County Council's recent blockage of a plan to expand five high schools will force the school board to make even more drastic boundary changes that parents might not find out about until later this summer, according to Hornsby.

"We do carefully make these decisions, but every community will be forced to deal with this over the next three years," Hornsby said at a meeting last month.

In the current debate, some of the criticism of DuVal has been scathing.

"You have a different caliber of parenting, a different attitude among the student body, and that's what we're concerned about," said Bennie Braxton, a library director for a D.C. law firm whose son is in fifth grade but would be switched to the DuVal attendance zone.

He and his wife, Eileen Braxton, a D.C. building manager, make a combined income of about $130,000 and own a $330,000 house.

Tabatha Burley, whose daughter Lea Richmond, 15, is a freshman at DuVal, doesn't dispute that DuVal needs to be improved. But she doesn't agree that DuVal parents are lax when it comes to their children's education. Burley, a divorced mother of two, rents a two-bedroom apartment in Landover and earns $33,000 a year as a sales representative at a clinic. She encourages Lea to go to college.

Burley sums up the Bowie parents' concerns this way: "You went to college for four years, then got a college degree, a master's degree and a PhD. You worked your way up and you're living in a big, old $400,000 to $500,000 house, and the person working at McDonald's has kids who will get the same education.

"My thing is, they should all get the same education."

George Howell wants his daughter to attend Bowie High School, but under new school boundaries, she would attend DuVal High.