Students, parents, teachers, and community members filled the cafeteria at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda for last night's boundary study meeting. Image by the author.

Montgomery County’s public schools are growing, and they’re also growing more segregated by race and class, which is hurting student performance across the board. As the county struggles to address these issues, a debate is raging about who belongs in our community, and who gets to benefit from its resources.

In January, the Montgomery County Board of Education hired a consultant to look at the catchment areas for each of the county’s 200-plus schools with a focus on diversity. Like the District, Montgomery County Public Schools hasn't done a county-wide boundary study in decades, due to resistance from parents who don't want their kids' school to change. (This often has to do with the relationship between school reputation and property values.) As a result, the Board of Education redraws boundaries rarely, like when a new school opens.

With the boundaries largely stuck in place, the majority of the county’s minority and low-income students have become clustered in East County and the Upcounty, while schools in the wealthier west side of the county remain predominantly white. Schools where enrollment is rising sit next to schools with hundreds of empty seats.

To avoid redistricting students to a “less desirable” school, MCPS has planned multi-million-dollar additions at Whitman and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools. Meanwhile, a few miles away at Springbrook High School, which has nearly four hundred empty seats, MCPS is taking away teachers because there aren’t enough students.

Whitman High School in Bethesda, which has almost no black or low-income students, will get a $24.5 million addition. Image by the author.

Segregation makes MCPS as a whole worse

As education researcher (and former MCPS parent) Rick Kahlenberg notes, segregated schools actually cost the public more to fix all of the other problems it creates. For instance, the county has limited construction funding, but we’re building new classrooms when (at least in some cases) we have empty space that we could use.

Segregation also exacerbates the county’s persistent achievement gap, or disparity in academic performance between black, Latinx, or lower-income students and their white, Asian, or higher-income counterparts. When wealthier families concentrate their resources in a handful of schools away from everyone else, that puts increasing pressure on the school system to provide for students with greater needs elsewhere—and we can see that in the school system's declining graduation rate, or falling test scores. Students also benefit from exposure to people different from them, reducing the likelihood of this recent nonsense at Churchill High School in Potomac.

After years of denying that segregation was even happening, school officials now acknowledge that it's harming student performance. “When you ask people what the best school district in the state is, everyone says Montgomery County, but looking at the data, that hasn’t been true for a while,” MCPS spokesperson Derek Turner told Bethesda Beat.

People are mad

Montgomery County Public Schools is holding four community meetings this month to discuss *the idea* of redrawing boundaries, and some parents have come out in force against it, claiming that MCPS will bus “kids to under-resourced schools all the way across the county.” A few parents have said some pretty awful things about minority and low-income students in order to defend their property values. From Bethesda Beat:

  • “They won’t be able to keep up and they won’t study.”
  • “White families are being punished for 'working hard and doing well and choosing to live in a certain community.'”
  • “It’s not our fault those children don’t have opportunities. You can’t put that burden on us.”

I attended the last of the four meetings last night, at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, and had a pretty pleasant and civil conversation, which I'm grateful for. But what we're heard echoes the county's attempt last year to open up its gifted and talented programs to more students of color, which got a lot of resistance and resulted in a federal complaint against MCPS. This time, however, the school system has pushed back against this language: Superintendent Jack Smith recently asked parents to “talk about students respectfully.”

But it's high school students, by and large, who have led the fight for redistricting, as they have in the past for the achievement gap. Student member of the Board of Education Ananya Tadikonda originally proposed the boundary study, and a group called MoCo Students For Change has been active both online and at community meetings. At a recent student-organized meeting on the boundary study, one vowed to “make the adults understand” the harm that a segregated, unequal school system is causing.

To deal with school crowding, the county will try to stop people from moving here

Meanwhile, starting in July, the county will stop approving new homes in a large swath of the county, including Takoma Park, Silver Spring inside the Beltway, Wheaton, Bethesda, North Bethesda, and parts of Olney. It’s called a “moratorium,” which the county has to impose if a school’s enrollment is greater than the number of students officials say the school can hold.

The affected school catchments—James Hubert Blake, Albert Einstein, and Walter Johnson high schools—will join Montgomery Blair High School, Northwood High School, and Ashburton Elementary School, whose catchments went into moratorium last summer. The areas affected include the small handful of Montgomery County communities that are actually growing, such as urbanizing areas near the Red Line and close-in areas with sought-after schools where home prices are rising.

A school bus stops outside an apartment building in White Flint, one of the areas where new homes will be banned due to rising enrollment. Image by the author.

For years, both the Montgomery County Planning Department and MCPS itself have said that, according to student addresses and tax records, most new students are coming from turnover in existing homes—that is, older people selling their homes to young families, not new construction.

County executive Marc Elrich rejects this data, as well as some parents who echo the dog-whistle comments parents have made at the boundary study meetings. One parent in North Bethesda told WAMU’s Ally Schweitzer that she supports the moratorium because students in “those rentals or condos or whatever they were” were filling up her child’s school.

Typically, the county lifts a moratorium by finding more school capacity, usually by scraping together the money for a new building or addition that would be built in the next several years. In practice, this means the school system simply shuffles construction projects around the queue, meaning that schools with significant needs can wait for years while other schools move ahead.

The other way a moratorium can end is by redrawing boundaries, so that another school can absorb the increase in students. Thus, the county’s boundary study could help end the moratorium, while addressing segregation in both our schools and our neighborhoods.

We have the facts and we’re [not] voting yes

I grew up attending Montgomery County Public Schools, and one thing that was constantly drilled into my head was that we have the best schools in the country, and thus everything here is the way it's supposed to be. As a person of color, I saw firsthand how toxic this message was: If you're not keeping up, it can only be your fault.

We live in one of the most affluent, prosperous places that has ever existed in human civilization, and but we use this mindset to deny access to anyone perceived as “not keeping up”: Who gets to live in their community, who gets to use a public street, who gets to attend a public school, and which schools get resources. And that's reflected in the county's practices of not redrawing boundaries, and not allowing new homes near “good” schools when they get too “full.”

However, these policies simply make our schools worse for everyone—more crowded, more unprepared to educate all students, and more of a burden on taxpayers—which only encourages wealthy families to further hoard their resources and scapegoat less fortunate families who work just as hard, if not harder, to build a life here.

We know that students from low-income backgrounds perform well in socioeconomically diverse schools, because the biggest study done on that topic happened right here in Montgomery County. We know that students from middle- and high-income families do well in diverse schools, while benefitting from the crucial exposure to people with different life experiences.

And we know we have the tools to make this happen, among them redrawing school boundaries and getting rid of the moratorium, which doesn’t actually address the problem it’s meant to solve. Can we rise to the occasion and be the progressive community we claim to be? Or are we going to uphold a status quo in which only a wealthy few benefit from all our community has to offer?