DESPITE CHARGES of racism and pandering to the fear of the well-to-do in Montgomery County, the county's school board actually did very little worthy of outrage this week in changing its policy on the racial balance of schools. What the board did was to limit the need to shift students from one school to another to meet racial quotas. And in the same motion it reaffirmed its preference for having children attend neighborhood schools. It is possible that the board's actions were nothing more than a manifestation of the white population's fear of the growing number of minorities and less affluent people coming into the county. But so far the attacks on the board look to be overreaction.
What did the board actually do? It raised the level at which minorities, mostly black people, are considered to constitute too high a percentage of enrollment in a county school. When the minority population reaches that trigger point, the board must take action -- shift students around -- to restore certain reacial proportions. This new policy is a change from the board's previous guidelines only in the percentage of minority students necessary to trigger action by the board. Under the old policy, a school could not have more than 50 percent of its students minorities. The board's new standard puts it at 60 percent, but the figure can rise or fall as the number of black and Asian students in the entire school system rises or falls. From the school board's point of view, this change was necessary because the county's population of blacks and Asians nearly tripled between 1970 and 1980, from 5.6 percent to about 15 percent. What may have reflected a racially skewed school enrollment in 1970 could now represent something different, given the larger minority population in the county.
To be polite about it, the board's view that a change was necessary is not shared by all. Opponents charge that by raising the percentage of black and Asian children allowed in a school's enrollment, the board is sanctioning increased segregation in the public schools. This line of thinking may appeal to conspiracy buffs, but it has little substance to it. Quality neighborhood schools appeal to more parents than those who are white. And having a child shifted from one school to another to satisfy racial requirements has never thrilled any parent or child, white or black. It needs a justification, a showing that there has been a racially discriminatory and damaging situation created -- one that can only or best be remedied in this way. Such a situation does not exist in Montgomery County. The board's lone mistake in adjusting the ceiling on the minority population in any school lay in not asserting that it will renew its efforts to make sure that all county schools have an equal chance to get the best teachers, the best principals and the best facilities. And if the problems of low-income families and minority families create added tensions at schools with large numbers of blacks and Asians, then the school board must be willing to give those schools added help. With that approach, the school board's new policy can represent a change for the better.