In Howard County, A ‘Courageous’ Plan to Redraw School Boundaries Tests Community’s Commitment to Diversity
Baltimore Sun, September 6, 2019
In Howard County [Maryland], people pride themselves on making everyone feel welcome. Bumper stickers say “Choose Civility.” The county’s pioneering newtown, Columbia, was founded on the premise that people of different races and economic status should live side by side.
Now, those convictions are being tested by a proposal that seeks to redistribute some 7,400 of the school system’s 58,000 children to different schools — in part to address socioeconomic segregation that leaves children from poor families concentrated in certain schools.
Signs like “No Forced Busing” and “Don’t Dismantle Communities” are appearing in protests in front of River Hill High School, where nearly everyone is affluent and very few are black or Hispanic. A Facebook page called “Howard County School Redistricting Opposition” has more than 1,900 members.
Many say Superintendent Michael Martirano’s redistricting plan will disrupt their kids’ education and force longer commutes. Some point out that these big changes to their child’s life won’t necessarily result in big changes to a school’s poverty rate.
They say the district is politicizing their children’s education.
No one should be surprised by the level of passion this debate is stirring, said Deepak Baskaran, an Ellicott City parent of three who opposes the plan. Should it pass, his young children would eventually attend a lower-rated high school that’s four miles farther away than the one they’re zoned to now.
The proposal is a rare attempt by a school district in Maryland or the nation to confront the re-segregation of schools that has taken place over the past several decades.
By 2014, Maryland was the third most racially segregated state in the nation, with one-quarter of its schools considered highly segregated. In neighboring Baltimore County, communities have pushed back hard at small attempts to consider economic segregation when redrawing boundaries.
At a time of acrimony nationally over race and class, some of Howard County’s political and school leaders have staked their reputations on support of the redistricting plan.
While the county’s politicians have no say in whether the plan passes, they have provided political cover for the school board. In the 2018 election, a new County Council was swept in, some campaigning on themes of diversity and equity. Most members of the council and school board have expressed support for a major redistricting, even if some believe that tweaks to the plan are needed. The school board is expected to discuss the plan at length before a scheduled vote Nov. 21.
Howard County schools are diverse — a majority of the students are black, Latino or Asian-American — and relatively few children are poor. Only 22 percent of county students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, which makes it more feasible to disperse children from low-income families.
Superintendent Martirano’s plan, released Aug. 20, has two overarching goals. It is designed to address the county’s pressing need to use space more efficiently in its 77 school buildings so that state officials won’t turn down their requests for school construction dollars.
While some schools have too few students, others are crowded, with trailers out back. More than 30 schools need to gain or lose students. The new plan in many cases shifts boundaries westward and would redistribute students so that at least 53 schools would be considered at the right capacity.
Currently, at 14 of the district’s 62 elementary and middle schools, 50 percent or more of the children qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, a federal designation of poverty. At a third of its 12 high schools, the percentage of students from poor families is nearly double the countywide average of 22 percent.
Under the new plan, the number of elementary schools with a poverty rate of 50 percent would be halved, from 12 to six. No elementary school would have a poverty rate of more than 55 percent.
The plan also improves the rates for middle and high schools, with no school having more than 46 percent of its students in poverty.
Since increasing economic diversity often leads to greater racial integration, those changes could have far-reaching consequences. Decades of research and multiple studies show that integrating schools has been the most effective means of closing the so-called “achievement gap” between black and white students and middle income and poor children. Students in racially integrated schools have higher SAT scores than those in segregated schools.
And low-income students who attended more affluent elementary schools scored on average two years ahead of low-income students who went to high-poverty schools.
Linda Leslie, PTA president of Wilde Lake High School, says she knows some parents don’t want their kids transferred to the school, where nearly half of the students are from low-income families. But she says her children have thrived there, academically and in attending a school that is diverse both racially and economically.
Under the redistricting plan, Wilde Lake would gain hundreds of students from the more affluent River Hill High School, which would reduce the percentage of low-income students at Wilde Lake from 46 percent to 38 percent.
In Leslie’s view, the more affluent families would bring new resources and support to the school. “They aren’t working two and three jobs. They have stay-at-home parents,” she said. That means they can volunteer more and provide more cash to fund everything from sports activities to after-school programs.
While River Hill’s booster club raises large amounts of money, she said, Wilde Lake struggles to get enough money to do the most basic projects for sports teams.
Opponents of the plan are aware of the tensions in the debate and how their stance may be interpreted. Some parents on the opposition Facebook page say they’ve been labelled racists or elitists because of their viewpoint.
The website for the anti-redistricting group “Families for Education Improvement” has recommendations for signs and slogans.
“A reference to a long bus ride is acceptable, any reference to forced busing is not,” it reads. “ ‘I love my school’ is acceptable while ‘I don’t want to go to (fill in the blank) school’ is not.”