THESE ARE GLOOMY days for some parents in Montgomery County. The school board is sending out bad messages about a good idea -- desegregated education.
The latest decree from the educational leadership of one of America's most liberal counties is that expanding school integration is unrealistic and school busing to achieve integration is a pain. So, the board decided earlier this week to alter its definition of what constitutes racial imbalance in a public school in a way that effectively will put the brakes on efforts to integrate the county's public schools.
That was bad news to David Tatel, a Chevy Chase lawyer who is white and whose children have benefited from an integrated education in Montgomery County public schools. "Here you have effective education and desegregated schools," he said, "and it is a tragedy that the board is now dismantling them and turning the clock backwards."
James C. Moone, president of the Montgomery Black Coalition, was less worried about the academics than the lack of political power for blacks in the county: "We feel helpless to do anything about [the board] because we just don't have any political clout at all," he said. "We haven't been able to get a black on the board in the last two elections. We feel some setbacks but we don't feel hopeless."
The county papers have been full of the pros and cons this week. One writer, noting an earlier board decision to not close Brookview Elementary School in Silver Spring (whose enrollemnt is more than 70 percent monority) after parents in the surrounding schools had hinted that they would not like the influx of minority students, rightly pointed out that it's a question of resources.
"This inaction is guaranteeing unequal education for the children in [Brookview], first, due to its underenrollment and consequent loss in program options, especially in light of future diminished federal and state aid . . . This is a classic example of how separate becomes unequal."
Still the board moved because it could, because the majority felt the time was right.
The message there can be a constructive one for blacks. It is simply that blacks are going to be more on their own in the future. A Chicago Tribune columnist wrote last week of this new attitude: It truly isn't racial hatred. It may be selfishness, and it may be fear predicated on less than altruistic motives . . . We are in the midst of an era of benign neglect in which white people do not wish blacks ill, but do not want to spend much time worrying about their fortunes and destinies, either."
The rapidly shrinking financial pool for public education most often sends the most resources into white schools, and it has been this fact that has made busing attractive for many black parents -- who have long since rejected the old notion that their children learn better just because an environment is white.
No, it is a question of resources, and it goes without saying that with entrenched white power in Montgomery County, black kids would be special losers in resegregated schools. But white children would lose, too.As one white parent told me, "Our choices are homogenized schools, or private schools, and in any case we will lose a sort of social vitality for our children."
All those things and more should be enough to prompt the board to reconsider its actions. The last message anyone wants to receive from Montgomery is that one of the most progressive counties in the country is ready to march down the same dusty Southern road toward two separate societies, two separate, and unequal, schoolhouses.