Any question about whether attendance boundaries are a political third rail in Montgomery County was answered in full with the reaction to Monday’s County Council-Board of Education discussion. Mere mention of the idea makes school officials squirm.
As part of a long, wide-ranging session on the achievement gap, several council members pressed Montgomery Superintendent Joshua Starr and board members on Monday to consider boundary changes as a possible tool for reducing high concentrations of students from low-income families. Research shows that such students do better academically in schools with lower levels of poverty.
Starr said an upcoming study on school choice will help officials and the community decide if it is an option to pursue.
“What we propose in our study. . . . is to actually take this on so that when we make decisions and say we are redrawing boundaries, our citizens, our parents [will say], ‘Okay I get it. I understand. I know what all the issues are so it’s all not simply willy-nilly.’”
Twenty-four hours later, at a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Starr didn’t exactly back off what he said. But, after a few shots at the news media for reporting what was said Monday, he took pains to emphasize that nothing was imminent.
“Let me be clear. There is no plan on the table to change boundaries for anything other than enrollment or capacity issues, which is a case-by-case-situation.”
MCPS also put out a joint statement from Starr and board president Phil Kauffman declaring “no imminent plans” to alter boundaries. They reiterated the point that they made to the council Monday: that housing and transportation policy must be aligned with school system goals to achieve more economic and racial diversity in schools.
“Boundaries could become — could, could — become a part of that conversation and would become one as we also think about housing, transportation economic development,” Starr told the board Tuesday.
As an example, Starr and Kauffman cited the county’s plans for the White Flint, which call for 9,800 new housing units. Just over 2,000 are projected to be moderately priced, and of those relatively few will be suitable for families with school-age children.
White Flint is in the low-poverty Walter Johnson High School cluster. If the council wants to promote more educational equity, Starr said, it will have to do better.
“This will not greatly increase the economic diversity of this area,” Starr said of the White Flint housing plans. “These are the kinds of decisions we have to make as a county.”