Montgomery County Public Schools are often regarded as one of the best school systems in the nation, with schools routinely topping regional and national rankings. But as the county grows more diverse, MCPS is becoming a system of haves and have-nots.

Percentage of students on FARMS versus percentage of white students in MCPS high schools.

In recent years, MCPS has experienced dramatic demographic shifts. In 2000, MCPS was predominantly white. Today, 2/3 of its 149,000 students are racial or ethnic minorities. 42% have at one time received free or reduced lunch (FARMS), a measure of poverty.

But those demographic changes haven’t occurred equally across the county. Despite claims to the contrary, a look at MCPS’ own data shows that who you are and where you live in Montgomery County is the best indicator of what kind of education you’ll get.

Increase in minority, low-income students concentrated in East County

Nowhere has the makeup of MCPS changed more than in the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which were established in the late 1990’s in an attempt to promote racial and socioeconomic integration in the county’s east side. 8th graders living in the Northeast Consortium are allowed to pick between Blake, Paint Branch and Springbrook high schools, while in the Downcounty Consortium, they choose between Einstein, Northwood, Kennedy, Wheaton and Blair, which is also a magnet school.

Graph of changes in white and FARMS student population at each school.

Over the past 15 years, they’ve experienced massive increases in low-income students and drops in white students. Today, the 8 consortia schools contain almost half of the county’s black, Hispanic and low-income students in a system with 26 high schools. Minorities make up at least 75% of the student body at each school. Nearly 80% of students at Wheaton and Kennedy high schools are on reduced lunch, while 10% of the county’s black students attend Paint Branch.

The Northeast and Downcounty consortia and “Top White” school clusters. Click for an interactive map.

Meanwhile, 6 top-ranked high schools contain a plurality of the county’s white students: Sherwood, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and the vaunted “W schools,” Winston Churchill, Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wootton. We’ll call these the “Top White” schools.

Black, Hispanic and low-income students are a small minority at “Top White” schools, and in the case of Whitman, almost nonexistent. While they’ve all lost some white students in past years, the proportion of low-income students barely changed.

MCPS is growing, but white flight is occurring too

To an extent, these changes reflect the demographic shifts of the county as a whole, which became a majority-minority jurisdiction for the first time in 2010. MCPS is also growing, and demographer Bruce Crispell estimates that as many as 85% of the county’s kids attend a public school, compared to 80% in 2000.

The proportion of white students in MCPS (solid lines) versus white kids living in the county (dotted lines).

If more students are attending MCPS, one might assume that it would look more like the county as a whole. But the gap between how many white students are in MCPS and how many live here is large and growing. Between 2000 and 2011, the percentage of teenagers living in Montgomery County who were white fell from 60% to 54%, while the proportion of white students in MCPS high schools fell from about 50% to 33%.

This suggests that white families either have left MCPS or moved to higher-ranked schools while other families take their places.

Your income level determines the quality of your school

Like most public school systems, MCPS school assignments are based on where a student lives. This results in what education analyst Michael Petrilli calls “private public schools”: high-ranked schools that serve few or no low-income students because the surrounding neighborhoods are prohibitively expensive.

Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda is a “private public school.”

According to local agency MoCoRealEstate, the median sales price of a home in the Whitman cluster was $860,000 last year. That’s compared to $330,000 in the Northeast Consortium and $322,000 in the Downcounty Consortium.

Home prices in each high school catchment versus the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch there.

Though MCPS boasts a high graduation rate, just 74% of students at Wheaton graduate within 4 years, below state and national averages. 1 out of every 8 students at Wheaton and Northwood drop out each year. But nearly all students in the “Top White” schools graduate on time.

More students are suspended, withdraw from school or drop out entirely in consortia high schools.

MCPS officials boast that every school offers Advanced Placement classes, a sign of academic rigor, but consortia students failed 60% of their AP exams last year. While most high school students countywide failed their math exams this year, the failure rate was much higher in the consortia. 4 out of every 5 students at Wheaton failed their math exams, compared to just 17% at Whitman.

AP and math exam failures are dramatically higher at low-income schools.

There’s evidence that segregation has had a negative effect on student performance. A recent study from the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight revealed that black, Hispanic and low-income students are falling further behind white and Asian students in performance on AP tests and the SAT.

It’s not that low-income or minority students are inherently inferior. But they often lack access to amenities like early education that can’t be made up at school, especially when that school is dominated by kids with the same needs. Studies show that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds do better in a mixed environment, which I’ll talk about in future posts.

Montgomery’s future depends on its schools

This isn’t a new problem. A 1994 study from the Harvard Project on School Desegregation found that past attempts at desegregation were ineffective, but MCPS administrators were unwilling to admit it. “The county’s progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions,” wrote author Gary Orfield.

If administrators seriously want to help their low-income and minority students, they can’t continue to ghettoize them in a handful of schools. Otherwise, MCPS will become a two-tier system, with a small group of highly-ranked, predominantly white and affluent schools, and another group of lower-ranked, predominantly poor and minority schools.

MCPS is also integral to economic development. The county’s efforts to revitalize East County neighborhoods, like Wheaton or White Oak, hinge on the perception of its most troubled schools.

How did this happen? And what can we do about it? Over the next few days, I’ll try to answer those questions, starting with a look at the the county’s attempts at school choice.

Dan Reed (they/them) is Greater Greater Washington’s regional policy director, focused on housing and land use policy in Maryland and Northern Virginia. For a decade prior, Dan was a transportation planner working with communities all over North America to make their streets safer, enjoyable, and equitable. Their writing has appeared in publications including Washingtonian, CityLab, and Shelterforce, as well as Just Up The Pike, a neighborhood blog founded in 2006. Dan lives in Silver Spring with Drizzy, the goodest boy ever.