Last month, in the parking lot of a Bethesda library, a thousand Montgomery County residents raised their hands and swore their commitment to dismantling white supremacy.
A few months earlier, just a few miles away, a smaller crowd formed in the cafeteria of Quince Orchard High School. This crowd gathered not to fight racial injustice but to uphold it: to loudly oppose the school system’s nascent study of boundary lines and countywide segregation. At this public meeting, one parent took the microphone and, speaking of black, brown and poor children in their schools, complained that “you can’t put that burden on us.”
The most important question now is: which voices will continue showing up and which voices will Montgomery County’s elected leaders heed?
We must recognize that the outrage that has exploded in the wake of George Floyd’s death goes much deeper than any individual police killing. We are witnessing the rejection of a style of politics that has been more willing to delay on behalf of a prejudiced few than to push ahead for everyone else. In Montgomery County, there is no greater example of that approach’s insufficiency than the enduring segregation of our schools.
We write as three successive student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education who, against fierce opposition, proposed and passed policies of school integration. Amid this renewed national conversation on race, privilege and systemic injustice, we must give Montgomery County’s elected leaders a clear mandate to push ahead in truly making our schools equal.
You might think integration would be a simple proposition for a progressive county. After all, integrated schools are empirically proven to produce the kind of equality that the country is marching for. For black and brown children, integrated schools lead to higher test scores, increased graduation rates and higher levels of college enrollment. Importantly, they prepare all students to live and work across racial lines without prejudice. And according to Stanford professor Sean Reardon, who led a recent study on modern segregation, “the only way to close the [achievement] gap is to racially integrate schools.”
But still, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, “de facto segregation by race, ethnicity, language, and income undermines student achievement” in Montgomery County. Why? As elected officials who sat at the table where these decisions were made, we can tell you.
Our former colleagues on the school board are good people and have a deep, demonstrated commitment to racial justice in our schools. But, ultimately, their charge as elected officials is to respond to those who show up. And when the board pursues progressive policies, it is often the vocal, anti-equity minority sending the most emails, writing the most letters and speaking out the loudest.
This asymmetrical pressure has led to a kind of overcautious policymaking that too often ends with more data collection than action. In the late 1990s, white parents mobilized to exclude Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Sherwood high schools from the far more diverse consortium system. In 2018, several community members advocated for their school to be named after civil rights icon Bayard Rustin while simultaneously asking not to increase the number of black and brown students assigned to attend there. Just last year, under pressure from an angry Facebook group, the school system asked a firm studying countywide segregation not to make any recommendations on how to remedy it.
Make no mistake: The anti-integration contingent some fear upsetting does not represent our county. Stephen Austin — who ran for school board on a platform of opposing policies of integration and whose slogan “Neighborhood Schools”could have come straight from the signs of segregationist protesters in the 1960s — lost badly in the Board of Education primary last month. Despite raising more money than almost any other candidate, he got a smaller percentage of the vote than President Trump did here in 2016.
Through that election and the enormous recent protests across our county, the people of Montgomery County are giving the Montgomery County Public Schools a go-ahead to pursue bolder policies of racial and socioeconomic equality. We can’t stop there.
Sixty years from now, our sons, daughters and grandchildren will look back to this moment of division. They will look to what we did: the choices we made, the values we upheld and the policies we passed to push back. We ask our community: Will we be the forgotten dawdlers of history, those who believed in justice but lacked the courage to go further than post on social media about it, or those who bravely stood up and fought for what was right?
People of Montgomery County: Let’s show up, finish the job and integrate our schools.