Many Takoma Park and Silver Spring residents were elated six years ago when the Montgomery County school board decided to use a magnet school program to voluntarily integrate the schools in their neighborhoods. They believed they had avoided the ugly skirmishes that busing had provoked in other, nearby neighborhoods.
Now another group of residents says the resulting Byzantine-like numbers game has left them victims of a different kind of racial discrimination.
Under the magnet school concept, students from the Takoma Park area, or cluster, have the opportunity to request to attend one of 11 elementary schools that offer unique academic programs. But because they are white, their parents say, or in some cases minority, they have been denied access to the programs, which were designed to attract students of different races to certain schools.
Lynn Sures Larson and Jean Ralph, both white mothers who live about five miles from each other, provide an illustration. Their two daughters attended the same private nursery school this year. Both mothers asked to enroll their child this fall in the all-day French instruction program at Oak View Elementary in Silver Spring. Larson's child was accepted. Ralph's was not.
The reason? Jennifer Ralph had already been assigned to East Silver Spring Elementary, a school with a high proportion of minority students. If she left, the proportion would be that much higher, in violation of the school board's racial balance policy. Larson's daughter, Inga, on the other hand, was to go to Highland Elementary -- a school with a minority enrollment that school officials did not consider excessive.
"They're using our children as pawns," Jean Ralph said last week. "I realize they've got to do something, but I think they've gone overboard."
School officials do not dispute the parents' arguments. Aware of these and six other appeals for transfers from East Silver Spring, they have found the complaints so perplexing that they are wondering whether the school system, in an honorable effort to ensure integration in the classroom, may have become too rigid in its response to racial imbalance and, in the process, unwittingly pitted educational concerns against minority representation.
"It's a hard nut to crack," said board President Blair Ewing, who, when president of the Parent-Teacher Association at East Silver Spring, spearheaded the cluster program. "The issue is how we arrange to ensure integrated education and also ensure that students can take advantage of all the program options available."
The outcome of discussions in Montgomery could reach into most of the classrooms in the lower-county area where minority enrollment is expected to exceed 50 percent in a few years.
But the difficulties in Montgomery, one of the 20 largest school districts in the nation, are not unique and, in many ways, reflect the perplexing questions cities and suburbs around the country are experiencing as they attempt to solve the problems arising from desegregation.
How far must a school system go to desegregate its schools when it is not under court orders? Are quotas and busing the answer? Or, is it now time, as some in Montgomery are asking, to stop thinking that there is something inherently wrong with having large numbers of minority children in a school if the school system can demonstrate its commitment to these children by providing educational resources?
In other school systems across the country that use magnet programs to attract students for integration purposes, admission typically is restricted along racial lines. Desegregation experts report only mediocre success, however. Either the academic programs are not unique enough to encourage students to travel the extra distance, the experts say, or the programs are placed inappropriately and attract students who worsen, rather than help, racial imbalance.
"The research doesn't suggest magnets satisfy any integration problems," said Santee C. Ruffin, director of urban services for the American Association of Secondary School Principals.
Minorities, as well as whites, are caught up in the Takoma Park cluster problem. Fewer than five of about 15 minorities who live outside the cluster area and requested a transfer into it were accepted for this fall semester, school officials say.
For the school year which ended in June, 377 students requested transfers in the cluster, most of them from schools already there. About one-third, or 137, were denied.
Jane Reeves and Janis Curran are two white parents appealing their assignments. Like Ralph and the five other residents of the East Silver Spring neighborhood, they were told by school officials this spring that their kindergarten-aged children could not transfer into Oak View for the French program although the classes were not yet filled and the school system was advertising for students.
Officials told them that East Silver Spring, with 291 students, is more than 60 percent minority, compared with a county average of 25.4 percent. No whites, with the exception of those with special needs, such as day care, could transfer out of East Silver Spring, school officials said.
"We all understand what the school board is trying to do and we applaud its integration goals," said Reeves, whose son Nathan was denied a transfer. Reeves, who teaches French, said she has been preparing her son for the French program for most of his five years.
"But suddenly it's all turned into this big statistical game. If we were a minority family from East Silver Spring we would not be encountering this problem. We are not making a frivolous educational argument . . . What I guess you could say is it boils down to reverse discrimination."
Curran, mother of 5-year-old Kristin, is equally upset. "The reason we can't get into the French program has nothing to do with it being crowded or not having the available space," she said.
It is true that if the Reeves and Curran children were minority they would be welcomed into the French program, which is more than 70 percent white, said Judy Patton, director of the county's office of Quality Integrated Education.
But Patton says her office, which approves or denies transfers in areas where minority enrollment is high, is bound by board policy. Eight years ago, the board said school officials had to consider the effect a transfer would have on the racial balance of both the current school of the student and the school in which the student wants to enroll.
Patton's office, which monitored the policy only loosely until a couple of years ago, has become stricter, she said, as minority representation has increased in lower county schools.
"I have thought again and again there must be a better way to do this, but there isn't a perfect way," Patton said. "We have an imperfect policy applied to an imperfect situation so we come out with imperfect results."
School board members have talked about addressing such racial juggling in two ways. Some have said they should begin considering remedies for schools considered racially imbalanced at an earlier stage. Others said the time may have arrived when the school system should begin looking first at making academic and staffing changes in schools with high minority enrollments rather than making boundary or busing changes.
Such policy changes would have an immediate effect on schools in other areas of the county, such as Montgomery Blair High School or Rosemary Hills Elementary, which also have unique academic programs.
Most school officials and national integration experts agree that although the East Silver Spring parents may have raised a reasonable question about fairness, they would probably be unsuccessful in any legal case charging reverse discrimination.
There is little legal precedent involving voluntary integration programs and charges of reverse discrimination. And in court-ordered desegregation cases, federal and local courts typically have upheld the right of local school systems to deny admission to students whose enrollment adversely affects racial balance. In one test case, a federal court in Chicago upheld that city's school system's decision to turn blacks away from a school that already had a high minority enrollment.