September 6, 2013

A Montgomery County school board member once told me, “There are no bad schools in Montgomery County.” This is sort of true, but so stellar a reputation often distracts people from the real problems Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) faces, such as a persistent achievement gap, de facto segregation by class and race and suggestions of middle-class flight. To tackle these difficult problems, families, community leaders and school administrators need to face a hard truth: MCPS just isn’t so great anymore.

In the past 20 years, MCPS has gone from being a predominantly white, middle-class system to one that’s majority-minority and much more disadvantaged. Today, there are more Montgomery students who receive free or reduced-price lunches than there are students in the D.C. Public Schools.

But these changes have not been distributed equally through the county. Minority and low-income students are increasingly concentrated in Montgomery’s east and north. Meanwhile, its vaunted “W high schools” — Wootton, Whitman, Walter Johnson and Winston Churchill — have experienced little change or, in some cases, have become whiter and richer.

As a result, MCPS is increasingly segregated by class, race and academic performance. There remains a substantial achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students. Many of the county’s high school students failed their final math exams last year, but few of those failures occurred at the “W schools.” Instead, they were concentrated at schools such as Gaithersburg, Springbrook or Wheaton, which face problems akin to those in urban schools and lag far behind their wealthier counterparts.

MCPS risks entering a downward spiral if middle-class families do not see every school in the county as a valid choice for their children, and the school system ignores these families at its peril. Middle-class families, with their typically engaged parents, raise the academic performance of all students. But census data show that the proportion of minority and low-income students enrolled at MCPS is higher than the proportion of school-age students in the county as a whole, suggesting that many white and middle- and upper-class families are choosing private schools. This further isolates minority and low-income students, causing school performance to suffer even more.

School segregation also reinforces the divide between rich and poor neighborhoods. A business seeking to invest in Montgomery County, whether it’s a corporation looking for workers or a restaurant seeking diners, seeks out places with higher-income residents. Struggling schools in Glenmont or White Oak may undermine the county’s efforts to direct private investment to those areas.

MCPS has attempted to address these issues through magnet or school-choice programs such as the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has designated some troubled campuses as “innovation” or “intervention” schools, giving them additional funding and staff resources. Starr’s Twitter account proclaims that he is “committed to public ed for social justice.” If he’s serious about that, he needs to make integration a higher priority.

That means shifting school boundaries, which will certainly tick off some families in areas with higher-ranked schools but could ultimately reduce the isolation of minority and low-income students, improving school performance across the board. Starr also has to consider changing the way school assignments are made in the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which have failed at reducing segregation and middle-class flight. And MCPS should take a greater interest in promoting economic development in East County neighborhoods, which could draw middle-class families back to some of that area’s lower-ranked schools.

It’s true that 85 percent of school-age children in Montgomery County attend MCPS. But that’s like saying that most people choose Pepco as their energy provider. Many families, including mine, don’t have other options, but that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with what they’re getting. MCPS needs to make a case for itself, and it starts by admitting that serious problems exist and that solutions need to be found.

Likewise, families in MCPS cannot take for granted that Starr and the Board of Education will act in their best interest. Starr’s reliance on squishy measures of student performance, such as “hopefulness,” sends a message to parents that any bad experiences they have are their fault, not the system’s. They have to get involved, no matter where their kids go to school. Given Montgomery County’s resources, every school in the system has the potential to offer a high-quality education, with engaging teachers, supportive principals and a school culture that promotes hard work and curiosity. But these things don’t happen without engaged parents to hold administrators accountable and demand the best.

Montgomery County Public Schools has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, and preserving the status quo is no longer an option. Our kids, our communities and our future prosperity depend on a truly integrated and equitable MCPS. It’s time for Starr and the Board of Education to stop coasting on the system’s good reputation and start working to maintain it. And we need our parents and community leaders to hold them to it.

Dan Reed writes about Montgomery County at the blog Just Up The Pike.