A unanimous Maryland State Board of Education recently declared that the Montgomery County Board of Education's decision to close Rosemary Hills Primary School in Silver Spring was "arbitrary and unreasonable." This remarkable and unprecedented decision has left in its wake a raging community debate. Should Rosemary Hills be a magnet school, should it be kindergarten through sixth grade or should it remain K-2? Which other schools should be closed, and where should their students be assigned? The debate is endless and there is little agreement. But many parents now agree that they have been victimized by a school board that has abdicated its responsibility to them and their children.
It was not always this way in Montgomery County. In 1976, the board of education decided not to expend its limited resources in a fight with the federal government over who was responsible for Rosemary Hills' becoming 90 percent minority. Instead, the board desegregated the school. It poured additional resources into Rosemary Hills, and it quickly became a national model of effective desegregation.
This is not to say that the program was perfect. Some parents were not happy with the school or some of its teachers. But nondesegregated schools had similar problems, and because the school board maintained its commitment to the program and attempted in good faith to solve these problems, parents maintained their confidence, and the program worked.
But in 1980, Montgomery County elected a new majority to its board of education committed to eliminating, at least for as many white people as possible, "forced busing" and other perceived evils. These members wasted no time getting started. They closed a black studies program for teachers; they fired the members of the board's minority advisory committee; they changed the board's guidelines to allow schools to become more segregated; and in November 1981, they decided to close Rosemary Hills.
The state board concluded that the closing of Rosemary Hills violated the county board's own standards, that it placed an unfair burden on black students and that no evidence supported the board's alleged educational reasons for closing the school. This was the first time the state board reversed a school closing decision.
Undaunted and unlike its predecessor, this county board has chosen to fight. It has elected to spend the county's scarce resources on a lawsuit against the state in a fruitless and selfish effort to prove it was right. In the meantime, the board announced a plan for Rosemary Hills that ends its primary program, does not significantly reduce racial imbalance and is unfair to many black children.
This is not the first time in this nation's struggle to desegregate its schools that public officials have acted this way. From Orville Faubus of Arkansas to Louise Day Hicks of Massachusetts, many public officials have frustrated school desegregation. At the same time, many more public officials--often in the face of strong public opposition--have stood firm for the principle that schools should be desegregated as quickly and fairly as possible.
Studies of desegregating school systems generally agree that strong and effective community leadership is critical to successful school desegregation. In 1972, for example, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission studied school desegregation in many southern and northern communities and concluded "one vital element in a smooth transition from segregation to desegregation has been the determination of the school board and administration to carry out the desegregation plan and to do so firmly and unswervingly."
To put it simply, desegregation works when school boards want it to work, and fails when they wany it to fail. Montgomery County proves the point. When its school board was committed to desegregation, fairness and equity, the community worked to make integration successful. Now the community has been divided and demoralized and its desegregation accomplishments jeopardized by a school board single-mindedly determined to destroy a fairly and successfully integrated school. It has been this "arbitrary and unreasonable" behavior of the board, and not desegregation, that has caused many parents to lose confidence in their schools and an increasing number to enroll their children in private schools. It has turned a community committed to desegregation-- those who are opposed have already fled-- into warring neighborhoods distrustful of each others' motives. White parents once willing to compromise in the name of fairness are now demanding their right to the elusive "neighborhood school." And most sadly, it is the board's behavior, and not desegregation, that threatens to destroy for the children the rich and successful program at Rosemary Hills.