Here's the plan. We'll pull together Maryland's top science students into a "super" math-science high school.

Each year we'll pick the state's 200 brightest ninth graders and let them spend their last three years taking college-level courses in physics, chemistry, math, biology and computer science.

This state-run "superschool" will be a residential campus, located in Prince George's County near the University of Maryland and Goddard Space Center. The kids will live in dorms, have their own sports teams and help out by working in the cafeteria and around the campus. And tuition will be free.

No, this is not "Revenge of the Nerds, Part III," it's the Maryland School for Science and Technology, the state's hottest new economic development concept.

This "school for smart kids," as one legislator calls it, will not only train our future scientists, it will give Maryland a national high-tech image and attract big high-tech firms into the state.

Who could oppose such a grand idea?

Plenty of people. And, curiously, the strongest opponents are the ones you'd most expect to embrace it -- PTAs and educators.

Last November the Maryland Congress of Parents and Teachers voted unanimously to oppose the plan. Likewise a number of local school boards and superintendents are fighting it.

To them, sharpening the skills of Maryland's "best and brightest" is not the state's most pressing need.

They point to Baltimore City's collapsing school system (50 percent dropout rate, chronic textbook shortages, abysmal test scores) and to suburban kids stuffed into portable classrooms.

"A viable school system in Baltimore is much more important to the economic vitality of this state than a math-science school stuck off in P.G. County," says Michael E. Hickey, Howard County school superintendent.

And how can the state afford an expensive new "superschool" at the same time it's dumping the cost of school construction back on local governments?

"Superschool" will cost $20 million and serve 600 students. Yet this year's entire state school construction budget to serve 650,000 kids is only $60 million.

Likewise, "superschool's" extravagant annual operating costs ($11,000 per student) anger local educators who see the state contributing less than $2,000 to each regular student's education.

But the debate transcends funding. It's a policy battle.

Opponents claim the "superschool" is elitist, segregates kids who need social exposure, duplicates sound math-science curricula already available in most public school systems and undercuts desegregation of "magnet" programs.

And some people just don't like boarding schools. Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Greenbelt) is undecided on "superschool," but his mother is against it. "She thinks 10th graders are too young to live away from their parents," says Del. Maloney.

"Superschool" is a battle between educators and economic development zealots led by the high priest of economic growth, Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The math-science school is his baby. He borrowed the idea from North Carolina and made it a campaign promise. Now it's one of his top priorities in the new legislative session.

Schaefer's critics say "superschool" is an economic development initiative masquerading as an education program. Schaefer doesn't see the difference. To him that's what schools are for, to improve the "business climate".

As J. Randall Evans, Schaefer's economic and employment secretary, puts it, "Economic development is the key to everything in the Schaefer administration, whether we're talking about health or the environment or transportation." Or education.

For example, the Schaefer administration is currently asking the University of Maryland to delay its opening until after Labor Day on behalf of Ocean City's businesses who want the college kids to work the Labor Day weekend. So what if the university can't complete exams by Christmas? We're talking economic development here.

For serious educators, the mentality and motive behind "superschool" are a nightmare. It not only diverts education funds to a glitzy economic development gimmick, it distracts public attention from the real problems at hand.

The big national high-tech firms aren't the only ones being sold on "feeling good" about Maryland. "Superschool" is designed to put Maryland's voters under the spell as well.

That's the Schaefer magic. It worked in Baltimore where Harborplace made the whole state feel good about a city that, statistically, was sliding into the abyss.

Only in the harsh dawn of the post-Schaefer era is Baltimore facing up to the decline that the wizard's illusions masked but couldn't forestall.

The danger now is that Maryland's "superschool" will become an educational Harborplace; that it will transfix our gaze on the shining symbol of a grand success that doesn't exist. In the long run that's bad for education and for economic development.

Good schools showcase themselves; so do bad ones. And sexy promotion gimmicks can't hide the difference.

The funds and focus trained on "superschool" should be redirected to improving Maryland's public school system. If we do that, the business climate will take care of itself. -- Blair Lee is director of corporate relations for the Lee Development Group.