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Diversity Should be Praised, Not Enforced

Diversity Should be Praised, Not Enforced

By Karin Chenoweth
The latest school integration case is now being chewed over by school board attorneys around the country, and it’s proving fairly indigestible. No one is quite sure where it leaves magnet programs, busing programs, transfer policies or anything else related to school integration and desegregation.
The case, Eisenberg vs. Montgomery County, began when a Montgomery County, Md., parent wanted his son to attend a school a few miles away rather than his home school. The home school, Glen Haven Elementary, is a large elementary school with about 600 students who come from very diverse backgrounds: roughly 25 percent are White, 30 percent Latino, 35 percent African American and 10 percent Asian — and almost half receive federally subsidized meals.
The school he wanted his son to attend, Rosemary Hills, has no special programs. It is a little bigger but has additional resources because many years ago, it was defined as a “math-science magnet.” It had been made a magnet because there was a lot of worry in the late 1970s and early 1980s that White flight would leave it an all-Black, mostly poor school.
The magnet stabilized the White population and, coupled with a gentrification of nearby apartment buildings, it now has a student population that is somewhat mixed but majority White.
Again roughly, the demographics are about 65 percent White, 15 percent Latino, 15 percent African American, and 5 percent Asian — about 20 percent of the children receive federally subsidized meals.
In any case, the parent ran into Montgomery County’s transfer policy, which said that children could not transfer from one school to another if it would negatively affect the racial balance at either school. No one seems to be sure exactly what formulas were used to determine this. But the Glen Haven parent was denied his request essentially because the school system decided that Glen Haven needed White students more than Rosemary Hills did.
He then filed suit, and eventually the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled — as it has before in other cases — that as far as government action is concerned, the fate of an individual cannot be tied to his or her race or ethnicity.
The Montgomery County Board of Education — arguing that the transfer policy was constitutional because it applied to African American and White students equally — appealed to the Supreme Court. Last month, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thus allowing the Fourth Circuit ruling to stand.
Montgomery County, just north of Washington, D.C., has something of a history of supporting integration. It by no means has an unblemished record on this issue, but it did not have the kinds of fights over integrating schools after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that its neighbor to the south, Virginia, did.
The county has a political structure that has pushed for integrated housing and public facilities. And, in fact, because of its housing patterns, Montgomery County has some of the most integrated schools in the country.
Einstein High School, which Glen Haven feeds into, is roughly 30 percent African American, 30 percent Latino, 30 percent White and 10 percent Asian. Thirty percent of the children receive federally subsidized meals.
Even the nearby high school that Rosemary Hills Elementary School feeds into, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, is relatively well integrated, by national standards, with about 55 percent White, 20 percent African American, 15 percent Latino and 5 percent Asian.
Of course, the schools that are known as Montgomery County’s “prestige” high schools have nowhere near those numbers. Whitman, Winston Churchill and Walter Johnson (sometimes referred to as the W schools) have very little diversity, except for that provided by the children of diplomats.
But they tend to have rigorous academic programs with experienced teaching staff. Students come from families where graduate degrees and brand-new BMWs are commonplace, and their average SAT scores are among the highest in the country. All the W schools are in the western part of Montgomery County.
As you move east toward Prince George’s County, which is majority Black, the schools become more diverse with a heavy concentration of federal government employees of all races and many families from all over the world.
Some of the schools in the very eastern and southern part of the county are majority African American and Latino with very high percentages of children receiving federally subsidized meals.
So the problem is not that Montgomery County does not have integrated schools. It has a very solid core of them in the central part of the county. The problem is that those integrated schools have a very nervous middle-class base.
The schools themselves have been undermined in a variety of ways by the school system — some have been dumping grounds for staff no one wants, some operate the entire year with substitute teachers and part-time staff. They have never been expected to meet a uniform standard — or, really, any standard.
The deputy superintendent of schools even admitted to a community group of one of the integrated high schools recently that the school had been the victim of neglect. And middle-class parents — White, African American, Latino and Asian — who pay attention to average SAT scores look with alarm at the discrepancy between their schools and the W schools. They are often left to think that the only way their children can get a good education is to move west or to be in private schools.
The possibility looming is that middle-class jitteriness will cause a flight from those integrated schools, leaving them with only poor students of color. Hence the transfer policy. But no transfer policy in the world can keep middle-class families from moving west, away from integrated schools, or out of Montgomery County entirely — or to the bulging private schools.
So the question for those who support integration is, where do we go from here?
I would like to propose a way out of this maze that I do not believe has been tried anywhere, and that is to reward integrated schools with additional academic resources that will quell the jitteriness of middle-class families.
Of course, the first thing that should be done is to make sure they have the same resources as the more prestigious, Whiter, wealthier schools. But, in addition, any school that comes within a certain percentage of mirroring the county’s population — racially, ethnically, and economically — should get extra resources that would add to the academic wherewithal of the schools.
I should add that nothing in this plan precludes adding resources to schools that are high-need but not integrated because they are predominantly African American and Latino. But that is a slightly separate discussion. This is just about supporting integrated schools.
The additional perks that should be considered for integrated schools should be things that are not ordinarily considered part of a school system’s responsibility. In other words, the extra shouldn’t be to have a good math program — all schools are supposed to have a good math program.
Integrated schools should receive extras that are desirable and academically sound but not acknowledged as a usual part of a public school program.
Such extras could be, for example, foreign language instruction in elementary schools; high-quality after-school programs; all-day kindergarten (Montgomery County now offers all-day kindergarten only in the nine poorest of its 123 elementary schools); and pay bonuses to teachers and administrators. The pay bonuses would be both to attract experienced, skilled staff and to acknowledge that running integrated institutions requires more work and effort. Even little things like scheduling evening school events becomes much more difficult in a diverse school where Jews and Muslims celebrate the Sabbath on Friday nights and Saturdays, Seventh-Day Adventists on Saturdays, and other Christians on Sundays. Throw in a few members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, who set aside one weeknight for family nights, working-class parents who work night shifts and hard driving professional parents who hire nannies to take their kids to tutoring three nights a week, and everything becomes difficult to schedule.
There are several advantages of this integration plan.
First, it appears to satisfy the courts’ requirement that the education of no individual child changes because of his or her race. It is an affirmative step to prevent segregated schools, which also appears to be a court requirement. It begins to reward families for living in integrated neighborhoods, and would — or, at least, might — encourage more to develop.
Additionally, this is a plan that does not rely on coercion, which has proved to have such mixed results in the case of busing. It builds on the fact that many, many people are raising their families in integrated communities and in fact want to do so, as long as they feel the education of their children does not suffer. It leaves alone those who do not want to live in integrated communities, but maybe they’ll come around when they see their children don’t get to have those fabulous after-school orchestras that kids in integrated schools have.
One of the more amusing scenarios that runs through my mind is that residents of the western part of Montgomery County, jealous of the foreign language instruction in elementary schools in the more integrated areas, would begin asking for the same thing. The answer to them could then be, “Fine, there are some nice affordable housing projects that you could support so that your schools, too, could be integrated.”
To know just how amusing that is, you would have to know how viciously those areas fight any housing that is priced so that police officers and teachers can buy them, much less actual poor people. In any case, they would most likely say they would prefer not to have such housing, and those in the integrated areas could say, “Fine. More for us.”
Such a plan is reliant on the fact that there is, in fact, a solid core of integrated schools in Montgomery County. This is not the case everywhere, but many places have a few such schools, and can carefully nurture the schools in changing neighborhoods, partly as an attempt to stabilize those neighborhoods and partly to begin building the nucleus of a truly integrated society.
This is a moment of opportunity. Let’s not let it slip away.   

— Karin Chenoweth, a former  Black Issues executive editor, writes an  education column for The Washington Post. She lives in Montgomery County and sends her children to school in the Einstein cluster.

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