Sixty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of students in public schools was unconstitutional, school districts are still seeking to establish best practices for integrating schools, both racially and socioeconomically. While the push toward integration is more typically seen as a concern for urban and high-poverty schools, Howard County—one of the wealthiest and highest performing districts in the state of Maryland—recently has put forth an integration effort that, hopefully, will be a national exemplar for other school districts.

Earlier this month, the Howard County Council in Maryland took a brave and important step. By a 4–1 vote, members largely endorsed a controversial school integration plan put forth by Superintendent Michael J. Martirano to reduce large racial and economic achievement gaps in the district by allowing students of different backgrounds to go to school together.

The vote is notable, because even though reams of research suggest that integrating schools delivers academic and other learning benefits to all students, politicians typically stay away from the issue. Yet on October 7, the Howard County Council passed an amended resolution of (CR 112-2019) that supports the school board’s efforts to address the achievement gaps by racial and socioeconomic factors in Howard County public schools.

The nonbinding resolution was sparked by Martirano’s courageous redistricting proposal, submitted to address overcrowding within the district’s school. (The plan will be voted on by the Howard County Board of Education on November 21.) Although controversial, the plan has the power to positively change student’s lives, as Martirano took the need for redistricting as an opportunity to further promote the district’s principles of equity and inclusion. The plan has three goals: (1) alleviate overcrowding in schools, (2) address the disparate concentrations of economically disadvantaged students, and (3) establish a pathway for the county’s thirteenth high school, which is projected to open in September 2023. To do so, Martirano proposes moving approximately 7,400 of the school system’s 58,000 students for the 2020–21 academic school year.

Addressing Howard County’s Socioeconomic Segregation Problem

Recent data show that, in addition to having an overcrowding problem, Howard County schools were increasingly becoming segregated by class. The county’s own school equity report from this past June shows that students participating in the free and reduced-price meals program (FARM) have been increasingly concentrated in certain schools. Over 72 percent of high school students participating in the FARM program are attending just five of the twelve high schools in Howard County, while the remaining 28 percent of low-income students are spread across the other high schools. The participation of students in FARM range from less than 1 percent at some schools, to upward of 50 percent in other (typically under-resourced) schools.

The problem with this concentration of poverty in certain Howard County schools is that it can create problems for students in terms of their academic performance. And indeed, in the midst of this increasing socioeconomic segregation, the graduation rate for Howard County students participating in the FARM program has dropped from 83 percent to 78 percent. Furthermore, the graduation rate for students participating in the FARM program is currently seventeen percentage points lower than for non-FARM students (78 percent versus 95 percent).

Superintendent Martirano’s plan would seek to address this widening achievement gap by reassigning students so that schools would move closer to the county average of 22.5 percent FARM participation. And as it turns out, some of the county’s highest-performing schools are currently underutilized, and so to address capacity issues, the redistricting plan would move enough students to these schools so that they would meet the district’s target attendance parameter, which is 90 percent to 110 percent of designed capacity.

As the Board of Education prepares to render a decision, members should evaluate how the racial and socioeconomic integration proposed in the plan would benefit students.

By increasing diversity in all classrooms, the redistricting plan would strengthen students’ peer groups and increase their academic performance. Research shows that when students learn in diverse backgrounds, there are benefits to all students in promoting creativity and critical thinking.

The Political Challenge

On the surface, the proposed redistricting plan seems like a logical intervention, particularly as Howard County has the highest-performing schools in the state, and contains the city of Columbia, which was founded on principles of diversity. Given all this, one may assume that this plan will be easy to pass. This assumption is wrong.

First, just like any school integration effort in America, this plan is running into a strong headwind of outright racism. Typically, any school integration discussion over the past half-century has quickly descended into the rhetoric surrounding “busing” in the 1960s. One Howard County resident even testified that the redistricting plan in Howard County was more controversial in 2019 than school integration efforts in 1965. In letters written to the Howard County Council in response to CR-112, some residents wrote that “Blacks destroy school systems and schools” and “On MY DIME, The Council want children of these people to go to school with my children.”

But beyond the racism, the logistics of any redistricting are going to result in a certain amount of disruption, meaning longer travel times for some students, as well as their feeling that they are being removed from their neighborhood schools and their friends. Some parents and health professionals assert that children may have to wake up earlier and, over time, could mean they receive less sleep, which could potentially impact students’ focus on their studies. Community organizations such as the Indian Origin Network of Howard County wrote that, instead of moving students away from their neighborhoods and friends, the county should allocate additional funding to high-poverty schools to help them increase academic performance.

These concerns of parents and students are valid. But just how widespread are they? And, are there ways to ameliorate some of the redistricting plan’s most disrupting impacts? As the Board of Education prepares to make a decision, there are three recommendations worth considering:

  • Centering the perspectives of the marginalized. Based on my own attendance at several of the county’s hearings, the majority of attendees are not demographically reflective of the residents who would benefit the most from the redistricting plan—low income black and Hispanic students. Although the Board of Education’s Attendance Area Committee itself has had a diverse membership, the board should ensure that the loudest and most organized voices—typically those of more privileged communities—do not win out. One way to seek better community input is through proactive outreach, such as that modeled in Minneapolis. In pursuance of passing the Minneapolis 2040 plan, Long Range Planning Staff did proactive outreach at street festivals to ensure the perspectives of people of color and indigenous communities were included in the civics process. Considering that Board of Education votes in less than a month, the board should use proactive outreach to help tinker with the logistical design of the redistricting plan after approval.
  • Applying grandfather provisions for certain groups of students. Juniors have testified that they oppose the redistricting plan because they would have to switch schools during a crucial time of their high school careers—while they are applying to college. They argued that being redistricted would pose challenges for obtaining letters of recommendation from their former teachers. On October 17, the Board of Education decided that no rising junior will be redistricted. The board could similarly consider other grandfather proposals to lessen the negative impact of redistricting on certain student populations.
  • Add “sweetener” programs to improve schools that are underfunded. Creating enrichment programs can, at the same time, empower students at previously underfunded schools, while also making those schools more appealing to incoming students. For example, a robotics program can expose students to new opportunities in science related careers, while also enhancing academic enrichment for new students who have transferred.

Although residents may support socioeconomic and racial integration, some say that the plan is not at the right time and should be halted until 2023. But, will there ever be a perfect time? The time to reverse a negative trend is when you see it. Waiting four more years to redistrict could result in even more concentrated poverty in schools, larger achievement gaps, and lower graduation rates for low-income students and students of color. Educational justice is an urgency and the time is now to act justly.

Editorial note: This article was updated to reflect how the county’s proposal would impact school FARM participation rates.