Desegregating schools

June 15, 1994

A recent study by Harvard University researchers has some negative words for school desegregation efforts in Montgomery County -- words that should serve as a warning to other counties in the region.

Researchers criticized Montgomery's attempts at racially balancing its schools, calling them "impotent" due to their voluntary nature. The study was particularly critical of the system's magnet schools, which it described as an inadequate desegregation tool. The result, researchers concluded, has been an affluent county that, despite its great potential, is marred by racial and ethnic isolation.

Howard County, often compared in various ways to much larger Montgomery, could take particular note. Howard is like Montgomery in that its minority population, including Hispanics and Asians, is growing, and pockets of segregation are emerging in the county's school system. Magnet schools are only on the drawing board in Howard, and their usefulness as a tool to achieve or maintain racial balance has not been fully demonstrated.

The merits of any desegregation effort may lie in a community's ability to discuss openly the often disturbing issues of race and ethnicity. Honest dialogue is not easily achieved, and yet it is an essential ingredient if this nation is to progress in the area of equality.

Howard County showed its disinclination for such dialogue last year in its reaction to the redistricting of Wilde Lake and Centennial high schools, a situation that had racial overtones. Likewise, the debate over resource equity in the schools has a racial component that has been largely sidestepped. Unless this tendency changes, the county will find its own commitment to equality questioned as it drifts toward further segregation.

The Harvard researchers have suggested that Montgomery County redraw attendance boundaries for schools with high concentrations of minorities or whites, and that the county open magnet schools in predominantly white districts to attract minority students there. Currently, magnet schools exist only in minority neighborhoods to attract white students.

These and other remedies need to be debated in Howard County. Combating segregation, de facto and otherwise, must return as a priority on the national agenda. Otherwise, the kind of inequities that are destabilizing the nation in the form of crime, teen pregnancy and joblessness will continue to fester.

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