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Starting the conversation about race, class and segregation

On Wednesday night, The Sun, Loyola University and Maryland Humanities sponsored a community forum to discuss segregation in public schools, following the paper's four-part series, Bridging the Divide. About 300 people showed up and stayed for more than two and a half hours to discuss subjects many people are afraid to touch — racism, overt and subtle; classism; and the still pervasive effects of decades of injustice. As of last count, a video of the event has been viewed more than 7,500 times on The Sun's website. People are clearly ready and willing to talk about race.

Who isn't ready to do so are our elected leaders. Witness what happened two days before when Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, tried to add an amendment to an education policy bill to address, at least in a small way, the socio-economic and racial segregation that are prevalent in Maryland's schools.

It was sometime after 10:30 that night, and senators, who had been in session for hours, were already a little punchy when Mr. Ferguson began talking about the massive barrier such segregation poses to the state's efforts to ensure a good public education for all children. Despite repeated efforts over the years to find some strategy to help kids trapped in failing schools, and no matter what resources had been thrown at them, he said, the state had not been successful and wouldn't be until it addressed the segregation that lay at the heart of the problem. His idea: If a school has been persistently failing for more than five years, the state school board should have the option of transforming it into a regional magnet program designed to foster diversity by attracting students across jurisdictional lines. It's a model that has achieved notable success in Hartford, Conn., where under a court desegregation order, several magnet schools with innovative programs have been created to draw students from both the city and the suburbs.

Senators had been debating a bill that has turned into a major fight between the Republican governor, Larry Hogan, and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly. But it wasn't the Republicans who rose up in outrage when Mr. Ferguson offered his amendment.

In fact, he hadn't even gotten through presenting his idea when Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, interjected to ask a question: "Ah, this would create Baltimore City-Baltimore County school districts?" Mr. Ferguson didn't get far in explaining that no, that wasn't exactly what he was talking about before Sen. James Brochin, another Baltimore County Democrat, rose to oppose him, arguing that Baltimore County schools are already overrun by city kids sneaking in. (Actually, Superintendent Dallas Dance says the district regularly conducts audits on this issue, and the number of improperly enrolled city students that have been discovered during his tenure could be counted on two hands.)

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller chimed in: "I think this amendment really jeopardizes this bill. Wouldn't it also apply to Prince George's and Howard?"

"Yes it would," Senator Brochin said, "yes it would."

Mr. Ferguson tried to explain that something like this exists now in the SEED School of Maryland and that this would "create an opportunity for a school where families are voluntarily choosing to send their students and you're reserving space for low income families."

"With this amendment, you're putting the board ahead of local elected officials," Mr. Miller said. "Yes," another senator chimed in.

Things went downhill from there. Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George's Democrat, rose to offer some support for Mr. Ferguson's general idea, if not the amendment itself, and Sen. Justin Ready, a Republican from Carroll County, which has been struggling to cope with enrollment declines, said his jurisdiction "would be glad to take students from overcrowded counties, particularly if the money follows them." But in the end, the amendment was a non-starter, beaten down with objections about the unfairness of counties that can devote more resources to education subsidizing students from jurisdictions that don't and complaints about the possibility that the imperative for desegregation could trump local authority.

Mr. Ferguson eventually accepted the inevitable and withdrew his amendment. "Consistently we are saying we can do these one quick fixes, and we never get to the heart of the problem," he said. "If we truly believe that all kids [should] have the opportunity to learn, we have to start having that conversation."

Senators, delegates, school board members and county executives: Your constituents are ready to have that conversation. Are you?

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