Donna St. George, Washington Post, April 21, 2019
Federal officials are investigating allegations of discrimination against Asian American students in a suburban school system in Maryland where parents have complained that race was unlawfully used as a factor in magnet program admissions.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights notified families it had taken up the case in March, months after a spate of complaints was filed against Montgomery County school officials.
Parent leaders involved in the action allege that the school system — the state’s largest — discriminated against Asian American students while seeking greater racial balance in two sought-after middle school magnet programs.
They say the number of Asian American students invited into the programs fell 23 percent from 2016 to 2017, amid a wave of attention to diversity issues, and then dropped by 20 percent the next year after a new screening and selection process took effect.
Anantham alleged that conscious or subconscious bias affected the process as the school system sought diversity, and pointed out that the number of white students increased over the two-year period. He took issue with a new consideration: the home school of magnet applicants.
Students are viewed less favorably for a magnet seat if they have a peer group of 20 or more similarly gifted classmates at their home schools. The idea is that students who have such a peer group at school can come together for advanced classes, whereas gifted students who don’t have academic peers at their schools may especially need a magnet program.
Anantham and others call the factor “a proxy for race,” saying Asian American students are more likely to be from the middle schools with these peer groups and that only Asian Americans saw a decline.
In a March 13 letter to Anantham, the Office for Civil Rights said it will investigate whether the school system engaged in “purposeful racial discrimination by adopting a universal selection process to intentionally exclude Asian and Asian American students from its magnet middle schools.”
Asian American parents in Montgomery say their concerns date to 2016, after the release of a report showing black and Hispanic students were less likely than whites and Asians to be chosen for a number of selective academic programs and to enroll in them. The study suggested improving early talent development and changing the selection process.
The programs at issue in recent complaints are a math-science magnet at Takoma Park Middle School and a humanities magnet at Eastern Middle School — programs with far more demand than capacity. In 2018, 279 students were invited, data shows.
In Montgomery, Asian American students represent 14 percent of the student body in public schools, while Hispanic students account for 31 percent, white students 28 percent, black students 22 percent and multiracial students 5 percent.
As the selection process changed, more black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students were tapped for the magnet programs. But the largest groups in 2018 were white students, at 39 percent of those invited to take spots, and Asian American students, at 25 percent, school system data show.
Anantham said he supports affirmative action — an important way to account for injustices against people of color in the United States, he said — but objects to a selection process that he feels tilts against Asian American students.
“In what world do white Americans need affirmative action relative to Asian Americans?” he asked.