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Students and parents protest the Howard County Public School redistricting plan at the first of three planned public hearings.

Throughout history, students have often led the way for civil rights and social justice — from participating in the Freedom Rides challenging Jim Crow and demanding the desegregation of interstate buses to leading the campaign to dismantle apartheid in South Africa. Even as adults hesitate to act, students are boldly leading the way on issues from common sense gun reform to climate change.

Right now, in Howard County, there is a debate on school diversity. In fact, almost three-quarters of the high school students from low-income backgrounds in Howard County attend just five of the county’s 12 high schools; just over a quarter of students are spread across the remaining seven high schools. If today’s leaders fail to act to address growing segregation by class and race in the county, students who currently attend schools and those who come after will miss the opportunity to thrive and succeed in a diverse and inclusive learning community — the very kind of experience that will prepare all students to lead us toward a better future.

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Unfortunately, despite Howard County’s long tradition around diversity and inclusion, the loudest voices in the current discussion have at times been those of fear — disappointing echoes in painful, heated rhetoric of our nation’s sobering past around issues of race. Yet, our children live in a more diverse country than ever. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055, the country will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. And we know that in the nation’s public schools, a majority of students today are students of color (but less than 20% of teachers identify as people of color, which is another challenge we must tackle) and a majority are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

As parents, we want what’s best for our kids, and in that spirit it is important to recognize that socioeconomic and racial diversity benefits all students, not just students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. Decades of research show that students who attend diverse schools are less likely to drop out, more likely to enroll in college, and better able to excel in a global economy along with lots of additional benefits. And despite fear mongering, research also suggests that while racial and socioeconomic integration positively affects the academic performance of students of color and low-income students, it does not have a negative impact on the academic performance of white students or more affluent students. Rucker C. Johnson, author of the book “Children of the Dream: Why School Integration Works,” found that — across all races since the 1960s — students who went to integrated schools and had the resources they needed achieved more success in life than those who did not.

The evidence is clear: The strength of our diversity far outweighs the cost of inaction. Indeed, beyond the academic gains integration brings, attending racially and socioeconomically diverse schools better prepares all students — white, Black, Latino and Asian-American; wealthy, poor and middle income — for success in diverse post-secondary environments and diverse workplaces. Experiencing diversity in school hones key skills like perspective-taking and creative problem solving that will serve students well not just in college and careers, but in their roles as participants in the civic life of their communities, state and country.

No matter how hard some may try, we simply cannot build walls high enough to separate our own children’s destiny from the child next door or in the next neighborhood over or on the opposite end of the county. All of our fates are bound together.

President Obama reminded us of this fact at his 2009 inauguration where he invited the Little Rock Nine, who endured extraordinary resistance when they integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. In his inaugural address, he emphasized that those whose sacrifices and perseverance made our lives today possible “saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” We must honor that vision today.

Sometimes we must do what’s tough to do what’s right. We can choose to maintain the status quo or we can choose to strengthen schools for all students through inclusion. We hope that in Howard County, throughout Maryland and across the nation, elected leaders have the political will and the courage to do what’s right for their students and their community on school diversity.

Arne Duncan (Twitter: @emersoncollective.com) and John B. King Jr. (John.King@edtrust.org) each served as U.S. secretary of education under President Obama. Secretary King lives in Silver Spring, Md., where his daughters attend Montgomery County public schools.

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