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Poverty, wealth, fairness: Where should students go to school?

Lu Shan, second from left, and Janelle Wong, third from left, demonstrate with others outside Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.
Lu Shan, second from left, and Janelle Wong, third from left, demonstrate with others outside Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. (Courtesy of Janelle Wong)

In a Maryland school system touted as one of the nation’s largest and most diverse, Janelle Wong’s daughter goes to an elementary school that is mostly white, in a prosperous suburb, with few students affected by poverty.

To its northeast, other schools in Montgomery County are far different — more crowded, with a majority of children of color, from families that struggle, in neighborhoods that are more strapped.

The often-stark contrast from school to school has set off a heated debate — about race, income, busing, home values, fairness — as well-regarded Montgomery takes on a third rail of school board politics: boundaries.

For the first time in a generation or more, Montgomery is looking broadly at how it assigns students to their schools. As it eyes its jigsaw-puzzle of attendance zones, ideas about integration have run up against school attachments and neighborhood bonds and fear of change.

Some parents, including Wong, see signs of segregation in school-by-school disparities, while others bristle at the word. One recent night, as a public meeting on the issue drew more than 700 people to a Bethesda high school, Wong joined other parents standing outside with signs.

“Better Boundaries = More Racial Diversity,” one of the group’s signs said.

“Stop Disruptive Redistricting,” an opponent’s sign urged.

The back-and-forth is an echo from another era — when school systems across the country churned with debates about integration — and a reflection of a national trend to factor socioeconomic status into the setting of school boundaries.

Thousands of people have flocked to Facebook pages in recent months, and some have testified before the school board. The tone has been angry and jarring at times — in a liberal county that prides itself on ideals of equity and inclusion.

“This is the most divided I have ever seen this school system,” said Natalie Thomas, a retired county educator who started in 1975 and has long been active on issues of African American student achievement. “I thought we were much more evolved than this. I know people are worried about their kids, but we have to think about all kids.”

The clash comes as the school board has commissioned a countywide analysis of boundaries in the 208-school system, which is the nation’s 14th largest and stretches across nearly 500 square miles.

Enrollment in Montgomery schools has surged by more than 20,000 students in a decade, climbing to more than 165,000. Some schools are crowded while others have empty seats. Some are in pockets of poverty, some in enclaves of affluence.

The system, once largely white, is 32 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 21 percent black, 14 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial.

“It comes down to a real philosophical debate,” said Llacey Simmons, who has a first-grader at Matsunaga Elementary School in Germantown and supports the boundary review. “Are you willing to invest in what’s good for the community versus what’s good for your pocket?”

Views vary on both sides of the debate, but many supporters of the boundary analysis say it could lead to changes that ease concentrations of poverty and relieve school crowding, and that all students benefit from greater integration. The examination is overdue, they say, commending student activists who drew attention to the issue.

Many skeptics say they support diversity but not busing, arguing that children should not be reassigned to farther-away schools, taking longer bus rides on clogged roads. Some contend the school board has not been clear about its goals and point to a policy change in 2018 that added emphasis to diversity in boundary-setting.

“We want an evidence-based research process that’s not based on a political agenda,” said Stephen Austin, a Bethesda father of two who launched a Facebook page, Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools, that has more than 7,600 members.

Montgomery school officials have scrambled to respond, insisting there is no “busing plan” in the works and that the effort will be used only to inform future boundary studies; it will not include specific proposals for change.

They point out that more than 100,000 students are already eligible for buses and maintain that any future boundary shifts would aim to involve “adjacent” schools or attendance zones.

“The fear is that we are going to willy-nilly bus kids from Bethesda to Silver Spring or from Potomac to Damascus,” said Patricia O’Neill, a school board member. “That’s not what we intend. We intend to maximize walkers and look at adjacencies.”

If shifts are being considered as a way to better use school buildings, O’Neill said, then officials would also look at socioeconomic balancing, as in the past.

Boundary struggles: A Maryland school system looks for more diversity

At issue for some in Montgomery is what diversity really means. They think of it as involving race, ethnicity, religion, language, national origin and more. But in the analysis that is underway, socioeconomics is key — as measured by the number of students who have ever received free or reduced-price meals at school.

By that measure, 94 percent of students face economic hardships at JoAnn Leleck Elementary at Broad Acres in Silver Spring, compared with 1 percent at Westbrook Elementary in Bethesda.

School officials point to research showing that students in integrated schools have higher average tests scores and that integrated classrooms encourage critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity, while helping to reduce racial bias.

School boundary debates about race, income, equity

Others cite the benefits of local schools, saying it’s easier for parents to be involved and for students to attend after-school activities. Closer schools are better for teens getting more sleep, parent carpools, student jobs and child care, they assert. And moving students won’t reduce the achievement gap, many argue. Instead of moving children, more resources should be steered to schools that need them, they say.

Leigh Kessler, a Rockville father of two, said that while he is a liberal Democrat and supports diversity “100 percent,” he takes issue with the idea of shuttling children to farther-away schools.

“I don’t think anyone doesn’t believe that kids from different backgrounds do better when they are together,” Kessler said. “The fear is that you are willing to throw everything out the door to make statistics your goal.”

The debate in Montgomery grew more charged after November, when parents watched a major boundary battle unfold in neighboring Howard County, where thousands of students were assigned to new schools as part a countywide plan based partly on socioeconomics.

Some see similar potential in Montgomery. Critics say the school system got a preview of what was to come last year when boundaries were redrawn in a northern chunk of the county, where they assert socioeconomics was overemphasized.

“It really showed people your voices may not be heard,” said Geeta Oberoi Tholan, a Potomac parent who said Montgomery is already diverse, neighborhood schools should be a priority and socioeconomic balancing to boost achievement is “such a long shot.”

“We don’t in Montgomery County want our children to be social experiments,” she said.

In the Latino community, longtime leader Diego Uriburu said some families support the effort while others worry that important resources at the more needy schools might not exist at the next school if students are moved.

“While the school system has said they would bring support to meet the needs, we have yet to see movement there,” Uriburu said.

As opinions have clashed, one public meeting in Rockville grew so contentious that audience members called out “Stop lying!” and at another point a consultant fielding questions was brought to tears.

The issue is expected to be central in the upcoming race for school board. An open at-large seat attracted 13 candidates, including Austin and several parents who have had leadership roles in the countywide council of PTAs.

Advocacy groups have formed. One pushing for keeping students in local schools formed with the same name as the Facebook page.

On the other side, parents have formed a coalition — One Montgomery — to make the case for integration efforts. A petition backing the boundary analysis has garnered more than 1,000 names, an organizer said.

Some point out that data shows that many students — 37 percent or more — already don’t attend their nearest school. They say shifting boundaries could bring some students closer to their schools.

The issue flares regularly on Facebook and Twitter. Critics say they feel they have been branded as racists. Supporters say the word “busing” is being used as a scare tactic.

“It’s gotten so polarized, so fast, and it feels like we’re living the 1960s all over again,” said Carla Morris, PTSA president at Winston Churchill High School, who said she empathizes with divergent views and thinks more civil discourse and understanding are needed.

“Our goals are mostly the same,” she said. “We’ve gotten caught up in the rhetoric, and it’s gotten kind of ugly.”

Simon Debesai, 17, a senior at Springbrook High School and a founding member of MoCo Students for Change, says he sees schools as de facto segregated.

His school is three-quarters black and Hispanic, with nearly half of the student body affected by poverty, while other high schools to the west are three-quarters white and Asian, with few students in need.

Debesai said that while the issue is complex — without any “one-step solutions” — he thinks the boundary analysis could lead to opportunities to be “pragmatic and practical, with thoughtful changes where we can.”

The idea of a comprehensive review goes back to advocacy from students, particularly a student school board member, more than a year ago. Montgomery had often done smaller boundary studies, but not a broad analysis since perhaps the 1980s.

The analysis, being done by WXY Studios, is due by June, with an interim report out in the next two weeks. It is looking at demographics, neighborhood considerations, school facilities and the stability of assignments, and will compare Montgomery with other jurisdictions.

J.P. King, a sophomore at Richard Montgomery High School who serves as a delegate to the countywide council of PTAs, said boundary changes could disrupt student friendships — and have a negative effect on academics.

“Instead of shuffling kids around, I think they should focus on improving the schools themselves,” he said.

Nationally, about 100 school systems or charter school networks have looked to socioeconomic factors to pursue school integration, according to the Century Foundation, a progressive public policy think tank.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision made it harder to consider race in integration plans.

“Decreasing concentrations of poverty is one of the most important things a school system can do for kids,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at Century.

When students move to more economically integrated schools, they benefit from the differences in environment: classmates who are academically engaged and plan to go to college, greater parental involvement and more effective teachers, Kahlenberg said.

Research shows racial and economic integration is more effective than adding money to high-poverty schools, he said.

Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University who has studied redistricting, said the tensions in Montgomery show that even in a place with a history of diversity efforts, the issue can be fraught.

“It’s about a lot more than where kids are going to go to school,” she said. “It’s about home values. It’s about potentially redefining what a neighborhood is considered to be.”

Achievement gaps in schools driven by poverty, study finds

Many parents in Montgomery buy homes based on impressions of the neighborhood’s assigned schools — scrutinizing test scores or state ratings, or drawing on recommendations from friends.

“A lot of us, we live here because of the school,” said Zhenya Li, a former president of the PTSA at Wootton High School, who said her family moved from Germantown to the DuFief area to be in the attendance zone for Frost Middle School and Wootton.

Redistricting should be a rare event, Li said, because students get attached to their neighborhoods and schools.

“I don’t think our children are just a data point,” said Li, who recently co-founded a political action committee to weigh in on county elections.

Jill Ortman-Fouse, a former school board member who has been outspoken in the debate, argues that no one is entitled to certain schools.

“This is a public school system,” she said. “You don’t purchase schools when you purchase your house.”

In Bethesda, Wong said she would be excited to see her daughter be part of a more integrated school — whether it’s the school she attends now or another school to which she is assigned.

“Attending a segregated school is not good for her,” she said. “I know racially diverse schools provide a better learning environment.”

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