Howard County schools superintendent Michael Martirano’s redistricting plan forces nearly 7,400 minors to switch schools. His goal is socioeconomic equity: busing children away from some schools toward others, discriminating against them on the basis of their families’ income. Martirano’s plan damages children’s health, separates families from their schools, increases traffic congestion and costs, and divorces students from their friends, teachers and sports teams.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball supports Martirano’s goal. But in a recent opinion column to The Baltimore Sun, he asks the Board of Education to pursue this goal while keeping communities together “to the extent possible.” He also “encourages every person in Howard County to join in a respectful, productive conversation on how to make that plan a reality.” Ball reminds everyone that “we are role models to our children.”
To that end, I have prepared a classroom syllabus for parents, educators and residents to use when discussing Martirano’s redistricting plan, through the rubric of Aesop’s Fables:
The goose that laid the golden egg. Howard County is a wealthy and diverse community where people relocate to send their children to specific schools. Yet, the redistricting plan disrupts these families’ expectations. Many such families will instead enroll their children in private schools, move to neighboring counties or else avoid Howard County in the first place. As a result, Howard County will become less wealthy and less diverse, and its school system will be less renowned.
The boy who cried wolf. Howard County officials libel the school system as racially and socioeconomically segregated. But they push a redistricting plan that exacerbates these alleged problems instead of solving them. Meanwhile, residents realize Howard County is not even segregated. Indeed, Howard County is the most integrated school district in the region. So officials lose credibility. If they ever identify a real problem or a useful solution, residents will be less likely to trust them about it.
The emperor has no clothes. Advocates of redistricting for socioeconomic equity insist it improves educational outcomes. They cite studies. Indeed, they cite the same studies over and over again. But when anyone reads the studies, they find the studies do not, in fact, support the redistricting plan: The studies are apples-to-oranges comparisons to Martirano’s proposal.
For example, in a recent article The Baltimore Sun wrote, “Students in racially integrated schools have higher SAT scores than those in segregated schools.” They sourced this claim to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. But that study says “the effects of school segregation are small and statistically insignificant.” Martirano’s plan admits that promoting socioeconomic equity will not increase test scores. In fact, test scores will decrease at about 20 schools. Two of the seven biggest drops will occur at the county’s highest-scoring schools: River Hill High School and Clarksville Middle School. On average, the test scores are a total wash.
The scorpion and the frog. Howard Countians feel betrayed. Like the frog who allowed a scorpion to ride on his back, residents indulged politicians who begged for votes at the Board of Education, the County Council and the General Assembly. Residents assumed officials would not threaten constituents’ expectations. But these politicians are proudly indifferent. New legislation makes that crystal clear. State Sen. Clarence Lam and Del. Eric Ebersole introduced a bill to mandate the following disclaimer whenever a family buys a home in Howard County:
“Buyer acknowledges that the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) schools designated for this property are subject to change at any time. The Buyer has no assurance that the current HCPSS school assignments for this property [commonly known as the school district] will remain in effect for any period of time.”
These institutions do not belong to you. They belong to the government. You are merely allowed in — or not — subject to change at any time. The idea of your school, your parks, your mascot, your community is a fiction.
To rub it in, Lam and Ebersole already joined Dels. Jessica Feldmark and Terri Hill in a statement saying they “understand that this is a complex and intense process” for the seven-member Board of Education and “can appreciate the extreme pressures that Board members face from members of the public.” But to the thousands of affected students and parents, these politicians merely “have confidence in the strength and resilience” of the students and “appreciate the support and guidance parents will provide.” Politicians express understanding and sympathy for each other, while from children they expect resilience and from parents they expect support.
Just as the frog was surprised when the scorpion stung him — causing them both to drown — Howard County is learning that government officials exist to govern, not to serve. It is the nature of the beast.
Lew Jan Olowski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney and a Howard County resident.