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Howard County’s redistricting plan: Progress but not pain-free

Outside River Hill High School, people protest a plan to redraw boundaries in Howard County to bolster diversity.
Outside River Hill High School, people protest a plan to redraw boundaries in Howard County to bolster diversity. (Photos courtesy of Scott Ewart)

Every school system in Maryland should be watching Howard County’s current effort to desegregate its public schools. It is among the most ambitious, most meaningful and likely most contentious county-level school reforms undertaken in this state in years. What is being attempted is simple enough. Howard needs to shift school boundaries to cope with overcrowding in some schools and underuse of others, and Superintendent Michael Martirano is choosing to make a more even distribution of low-income students in the system a priority in that process. Still, the plan is not without drawbacks. Even in an affluent county with one of the highest performing public school systems in the state and a tradition of diversity and civility, the prospect of one’s child being shifted from a high-performing neighborhood school to one that has historically been lower-performing and might be miles away from home has sparked parent protests.

Here’s the nugget of truth that can’t be overlooked as Howard Countians debate Superintendent Martirano’s plan to shift about 7,400 students within a school system that serves 58,000: Racial and socioeconomic diversity improves student performance. This has been proven over and over again. Concentrate poor and minority kids into fewer classrooms and they will under-perform. Spread them out and let them learn side-by-side with affluent children and they are more likely to excel (without any sacrifice from their higher-income classmates in traditional performance measures, incidentally). Thus, the only serious question about improving educational outcomes for all students is how best to achieve this beneficial circumstance.

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Voluntary educational programs such as magnet schools and charter schools that might draw students county-wide are sometimes useful. But redistricting deserves serious consideration as a means to integration, though it often doesn’t get it. Why? Chiefly because such decisions are painful, and politicians fear the passions redistricting proposals inevitably stir.

Already, the outcry from Howard County has been tangible. We would advise protesters that white parents waving signs that decry “forced busing” is not a good look if you don’t wish to be seen as racist. That said, some misgivings are understandable. Let’s say you moved to a certain street specifically so your child can attend River Hill High and you are suddenly told that no, your progeny isn’t going there but to a less-well-regarded school farther away. Maybe you paid tens of thousands more for your home because it was near River Hill. Perhaps the new school is so far away that your child will struggle to attend after-school activities. These are not imaginary concerns. And they are not easily dismissed with a wave of a hand and a promise that all county schools are good.

Yet here’s the core of the matter: The benefits of shifting students will outweigh these drawbacks. By a substantial margin. As Sen. Kamala Harris, a beneficiary of “forced busing” in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s and now a candidate for president has observed, the integration of schools made possible by busing has yielded great benefits to this nation — and her personally. Yet for all its 1960s feel, it’s a battle that still hasn’t been won in 2019. Efforts to better integrate low-income housing into affluent neighborhoods, often imposed by courts, are worthwhile, but are still relatively rare and exceedingly difficult.

Today, schools remain segregated. A 2014 survey observed that Maryland is the third most racially segregated state in the nation. And while affluence (chiefly whether one qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal) is an imperfect measure of racial diversity, there’s little doubt that it’s a useful marker. Howard County is on the right track, but it’s simply not an easy one to follow.

Can we all agree that diverse is better? Even those students in high-performing schools would benefit from the real-world experience of going to school with someone who isn’t of the same race, religion and income level. Look around. The nation is seething with intolerance. It won’t become a more tolerant place if youngsters of differing social circumstances are kept at a distance.

We don’t know if Mr. Martirano’s plan is perfect. It may well not be. But if diversity can’t be attained in Howard County, the home of James Rouse’s Columbia, which was founded on that very goal, there’s little hope that any other school system in this state will fare better.

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