Instead Of Race, Try Class Mixing

COMMENT

June 13, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

In the recent debate over the redistricting of Wilde Lake an Centennial high schools, some people argued that redrawing the boundary lines of those schools afforded a wonderful opportunity to create a socio-economic balance, at least within Wilde Lake.

I was one of the proponents of this approach and have since come across information that suggests that redistricting based on income is a possibility worth investigating.

Last year, schools in La Crosse, Wis. became the first to provide a balanced mix of rich and poor children in elementary schools.

What led to the move suggests parallels between La Crosse and Howard County. Basically, the La Crosse system, facing overcrowding in some of its elementary schools, decided to construct two new schools at opposite ends of the city of 51,000 residents. In the process of deciding who would attend the new schools, school officials wondered whether a high concentration students from low-income households at two other schools might benefit from the redistricting effort.

Under a proposed plan, the district lines were drawn to provide a better mix of students from different socio-economic backgrounds. Poor students were identified as those who received subsidized lunches.

The city made history with its redistricting plan, but also created a political firestorm. Affluent parents fought the proposal hard, even unseating several Board of Education members. And a battle to oust the city school superintendent continues.

But that's not the whole story on La Crosse.

Once the economic desegregation plan went into effect, parents who had protested against the effort discovered that their worst fears were unfounded. Many came to prefer their new schools and when later given the option of transferring back to their original ones, few did.

Here in Howard, the school system already considers socio-economic balance as one of 10 factors when redistricting. My question has always been what priority is given to socio-economic balance when these decisions are made.

In the Centennial and Wilde Lake situation, I believe school officials succumbed to political pressure and failed to keep student achievement as their primary concern.

In the past, school officials have done a better job of attempting to create a more even mix of affluent and poorer students.

Case in point was the redistricting of Wilde Lake Middle School in 1991-92. Parents from Clemens Crossing initially battled the redistricting. But later, as in LaCrosse, these parents either became resigned to the situation or began to prefer their new school.

After such a successful experience, the school system's retreat on the Wilde Lake-Centennial redistricting seems that much more foolish. Equally confounding is why school officials have not done an investigation of the La Crosse plan to see if anything could be learned from that.

Maurice Kalin, the associate superintendent responsible for redistricting plans, said no decision has been made to look at the La Crosse model, although he did indicate that that posture could change in the future.

At the same time, he pointed out some potential problems in trying to duplicate what La Crosse has done, including the difference in size of the two school districts and other technical -- redistricting concerns.

Superintendent Michael Hickey also cautioned against viewing La Crosse as an easy fix. He said he still has concerns about redistricting on the basis of economics and race, because it raises the issue of quotas.

He did say that school officials are looking at ways of dividing the school system into regions. Socio-economic balance might be easier to achieve if it were done within smaller geographical areas, he suggested.

Again, Mr. Hickey said these discussions are preliminary and that how much a regional plan can achieve is unknown. "This is totally theoretical," the superintendent cautioned.

I agree that the La Crosse model may not be easily applicable to Howard County. But it does deserve a look.

One of the things it accomplished in Wisconsin was to turn the focus of redistricting away from race and ethnicity and toward income as a factor in education.

What has made the Howard County situation so volatile is that issues of race and income have been jumbled together. Unfortunately for many, low income was equated with being black.

Many African-Americans in Howard County found that correlation insulting and objected to their children bearing the brunt of any redistricting moves.

Granted, La Crosse has relatively few black families; the most visible minority are Hmong immigrants. Even they represented a small percentage of the low-income students. The majority of those were poor whites.

But class issues did surface in La Crosse, as here.

L The difference is that La Crosse officials met them head on.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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