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Vipin Sahijwan of Fulton speaks at the Howard County redistricting opposition rally to the field of Howard County residents and students.
Vipin Sahijwan of Fulton speaks at the Howard County redistricting opposition rally to the field of Howard County residents and students. (Karen Jackson For Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media)

The Howard County Board of Education appears set to approve Thursday a school redistricting plan substantially different from the one Superintendent Michael Martirano proposed just this summer. The good news is that the measure looks to offer some relief to overcrowded classrooms and make better use of existing capacity. That is no small thing. But where it is about to fall short, it will likely fall short in a big way: Already gone from the proposal is much of the superintendent’s ambitious plan to spread out thousands of low-income students so that instead of being stuck in large numbers in certain schools they would be mixed in with more affluent peers and thus have access to the high-achieving district’s top academic centers.

The rationale for better integration was straightforward. Socioeconomic and racial diversity improves academic outcomes. Not just for low-income students placed with higher-income students but for all. This is a contentious notion but academic studies bear it out. And it’s a perspective that’s helped fuel the rise in charter and magnet schools that so often allow families to overcome the disadvantages of segregated housing. And just as importantly, Howard County looked to be the ideal district in Maryland to carry the desegregation banner. Nearly half of county residents identify as racial minorities. And Columbia, the county’s planned community, was founded more than a half-century ago in the spirit of diversity and tolerance. The county even has a motto promoted by its library system of “Choose Civility.”

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What happened next? Readers of this newspaper know all too well. Families in the county’s highest rated schools like River Hill High School where less than 5% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced price meals protested. Loudly. Forcefully. Angrily. And so now the school board is looking at a plan they’ve diluted polygon by polygon that makes only a fractional change to concentrations of such students. At Ducketts Lane Elementary in Elkridge, for example, the revised proposal would remain 51% low-income students instead of the current 55%. Does a 4% shift make an impact? Maybe, maybe not.

Even more troubling was the process. To hear some of the protesting parents, one would believe that they faced economic ruin with property values potentially dropping by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars, their children relegated to dead-end futures because they might be required to attend Wilde Lake High School, where standardized test scores are significantly lower than River Hill’s (with about half meeting state math and English language standards under the Maryland Report Card) but still substantially better than the statewide average. Somehow, Wilde Lake alumni like actor Edward Norton and author Laura Lippman seemed to have done fairly well for themselves. Truth is, there are no bad public schools in Howard County. But then that’s not what the argument was about.

Folly Quarter Middle School sixth graders Sophia Chunovsky, left, Iris Chiang and Alisha Rehman dance in the field with signs at the Howard County redistricting opposition rally held at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
Folly Quarter Middle School sixth graders Sophia Chunovsky, left, Iris Chiang and Alisha Rehman dance in the field with signs at the Howard County redistricting opposition rally held at the Howard County Fairgrounds. (Karen Jackson For Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media)

The question before the school board and county residents was never about whether to embrace social engineering as critics claimed. It was about equity and how committed the county was to that goal. A watered-down result doesn’t prove the county of James Rouse has turned its back on diversity. It surely hasn’t. What it suggests is that as soon as that goal causes disruption — as soon as it leads a substantial number of people to believe their children are being shortchanged — diversity takes a backseat. People believe they are in a zero-sum game, that for every new opportunity given a low-income student, there was an equal sacrifice being expected of someone else. We don’t believe that was true, but how could it be proven to their satisfaction? That left authorities in a difficult spot.

And so, if the school board acquiesces as expected, those who fought Mr. Martirano’s bold plan will be rewarded for their efforts. But the effort need not end there. Redistricting may be painful, but it can easily be revisited. Perhaps two years from now during the ’20-'21 calendar when it’s clear that shifting around students who qualify for a reduced-price meal isn’t ruinous, communities might be open to a bit more shift, and then a bit more and some more after that. If there is a lesson to be learned from all this drama — and the national attention it brought the county — it might be that school assignments are not set in stone. Not now. Not ever.

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