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Baltimore County's long legacy of segregation

Baltimore County's legacy of segregation isn't going to go away on its own.

Baltimore County has a history of overt racial segregation. In the 1970s, it was famously described by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as a "white noose" around the city. The county executive at the time made keeping blacks out a central policy goal of his administration. Real estate agents were at one point actually instructed to inform the police chief if they sold Baltimore County homes to blacks.

The residents of southwestern Baltimore County who were involved in the debate over redistricting elementary schools, as depicted in a Sun investigation by Liz Bowie and Erica Green, were separated from those policies and practices by nearly half a century. Their concerns about combining students from the predominantly black schools in the area with students from the predominantly white schools weren't couched in explicitly racial terms but rather as concerns about maintaining neighborhood schools, preserving high academic standards and protecting the investments they made in homes that were more expensive because of the elementaries they fed into.

There are some understandable impulses at the heart of the resistance on the part of many parents — including, ultimately, some African-American families — to scramble the district lines to produce highly integrated schools rather than the segregated ones that now exist. Parents get involved in the schools and advocate for smaller classes and more modern facilities not out of a desire to provide better opportunities for children in general but because they want the best possible education for their own kids. The parents involved may well know that research consistently shows the advantage of schools that are integrated in terms of race and socio-economics not just for minorities and poor students but for all. In the abstract, they may well support the goal of integration. But if you've spent years fighting for a new Catonsville Elementary School, are you going to be happy about new lines that send your child somewhere else?

Unlike Montgomery County and a relative handful of other districts across the nation, Baltimore County does not make the promotion of diversity and integration explicit goals when the school system draws new boundary lines. The process is driven by committees of community stakeholders — parents, teachers and others — with the effect that preserving the status quo becomes the top priority. To be sure, Ms. Bowie and Ms. Green documented cases of parents and teachers involved in the southwestern redistricting who tried to put integration into the center of the debate, but theirs were isolated voices, and their ideas were overruled. It would take strong, consistent and determined leadership for the outcome to have been any different, and in Baltimore County, that didn't happen.

Superintendent Dallas Dance is an apostle of the benefits of diversity. He points out, quite correctly, that the most effective (and, in logic that appeals to the Baltimore County taxpayer, cheapest) way to erase the achievement gap between minority and white students is integration. It brings up minority students' test scores and doesn't hurt white students. If anything, it helps. Mr. Dance isn't shy about presenting those arguments, but he says he believes he would have been fired by the school board if he had pushed integration to the forefront of the conversation about redistricting. Whether that's literally true or not, he's certainly right that the board didn't exhibit any leadership of its own on the matter, and he's faced strong opposition from some members when he has pursued policies to foster greater equity between minority and white students.

Moreover, it would be difficult to discern much support from the county's political leaders for making an issue of it. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has shown political courage in embracing policies to break down residential segregation along race and class lines, but the County Council has shown no inclination to follow. For example, as part of a landmark settlement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mr. Kamenetz agreed to introduce and support legislation banning landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who use federal housing vouchers. In the council, which had previously moved to block affordable housing developments, it was dead on arrival.

But the inescapable truth is that Baltimore County is rapidly changing. It was 90 percent white as recently as 1980; at the rate it is diversifying, the county will be majority-minority within the next 15 years. Its schools already are. The county's leaders can choose to recognize that fact and pursue policies that produce the best possible opportunities for all communities, or they can ignore it and watch as the kinds of entrenched problems that have decimated so many segregated communities in the city creep across the county line.

This is a moment when Baltimore County has an opportunity to choose the right course. A committee is currently reviewing the county charter for the first time in a generation; it should seriously consider the idea of increasing the size of the County Council — which has had seven members since it was established in the late 1950s — so that it better reflects the county's diversity. The standard objection is that adding more council members would increase costs, but the expense of, say, two more seats pales next to the cost of managing the county's increasing diversity poorly. Meanwhile, the county will for the first time elect most of the members of its school board in 2018. We need the kind of people who were brave enough to speak up for integration during the southwest redistricting to run and make it a central issue of the campaign.

Baltimore County has changed a lot since the bad old days of segregation, but the legacy of that time is still with us. It won't go a way on its own. We need leaders just as courageous today as they were craven then.

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