School Zone Fight: Liberals In Retreat

COMMENT

March 21, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS | KEVIN THOMAS,Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

One of the most disheartening trends of the past decade has been the absolute retreat by moderates and liberals from integration as a tool to promote social equality.

White conservatives are one matter. But people who took their cues from the civil rights movement -- blacks and whites both -- have among their ranks these days a significant number who have abandoned the goal of integration, concluding that it has not worked, is not necessary or isn't worth the effort.

Saddest of all events is that this trend has caught hold in Howard County, which -- because of Columbia -- has a reputation for progressive policies and a social conscience.

An erosion of the liberal landscape here is clearly evident in the current wrangling over the redistricting of some county schools.

Whether it be the parent who grumbles that redistricting will mean having his child attend an "inferior" school, or the guardian who insists on maintaining neighborhood boundaries that are dubiously drawn, the undertone of the current debate shows how far we have slipped from the days when a significant number of people had genuine concern about those living in poverty.

The most compelling example of this erosion can be seen in the redistricting of the Centennial and Wilde Lake high school communities. But the problem of inequality and a social-economic imbalance is system-wide.

Barbara Strong Goss, a parent who has almost single-handedly challenged the county school system to correct the imbalance that exists, makes no bones about her impatience that something be done.

"It has been almost 40 years since the United States Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education, holding that so-called separate but equal schools were inherently unequal," Ms. Goss stated recently. "I am not willing to wait until we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that decision to achieve equality."

Unfortunately, Ms. Goss is virtually a lone voice in the community on that argument. Miraculously, because of the thoroughness of her research and the rightness of her position, she has left school officials stupefied and unable to respond in a convincing way.

Parents from the Beaverbrook, Longfellow and Hobbits Glen neighborhoods are right to label "unconscionable" the proposal by school officials to redistrict their areas into Wilde Lake. Their communities, currently districted for Centennial, are the only ones that infuse that high school with a significant minority and socially disadvantaged population.

The fact that they alone are being redistricted into Wilde Lake, where the current minority population is 42 percent, and no move is afoot to include the mostly white, affluent Dorsey Hall neighborhood in that plan, suggests a school board that has abandoned its social morals for political expediency.

Moreover, the school board's response to Ms. Goss has been to issue a two-page document that refutes, item by item, six assumptions that officials say Ms. Goss makes that are incorrect.

Most of the items don't deserve a comment, but at least one of the assertions is too outrageous to ignore. It is that Ms. Goss has advocated that students who are disadvantaged would have to be redistricted to achieve a balance within the schools.

Ms. Goss maintains that is not what she has advocated, because any redistricting to achieve a social-economic balance would have to mean moving students who are disadvantaged and those who are not. The situation at Wilde Lake and Centennial proves that.

One item mentioned in the school board document has some merit, however. It points out that housing patterns, intentionally created in some neighborhoods, are at the root of the current imbalance in some schools.

One need only look at the debate being waged before the county zoning board over the comprehensive rezoning of the eastern side of the county to know that zoning patterns have created affluent enclaves.

The raucous objections to plans that would allow development of communities to include a mix of housing, attracting various social-economic levels, shows how far some have sunk in their elitist philosophies.

But the school board should not use historically class-conscious zoning as an excuse to avoid corrective action, any more than the zoning board should use it to sidestep its responsibilities.

The last presidential campaign, as well as the focus of the current administration in the White House, shows how receptive the public can be to the idea of making a sacrifice no matter how personally painful it might be.

Local leaders -- including those on the school board -- need to take their cues from this new direction. They may find that they can buck an unfortunate trend that is gripping the county just as it has gripped the nation.

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