An Exciting Opportunity to Integrate Montgomery County Schools by Richard Kahlenberg

Written by: Rick Kahlenberg

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, the issue of school integration is once again back on the agenda for Montgomery County public schools.

In April, the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight issued a disturbing report showing that racial and economic achievement gaps are growing and segregation is rising.  But tucked into the report was the hopeful finding that low-income students in lower-poverty schools perform better than low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools.

Earlier this month, County Council members, pointing to the report, met with school officials to ask about ways to promote greater diversity in the public schools.  More than 80 school districts across the country, educating some 4 million students, are taking affirmative steps to reduce concentrations of school poverty.  Montgomery County itself has a policy on the books that says factors like the socioeconomic status (as measured by eligibility for subsidized meals) should be a factor in the drawing of school boundaries and the construction of school choice programs.


According to a recent article in the Washington Post, superintendent Joshua Starr said the school system plans to evaluate its school choice programs and might address as part of that review the issue of integration.  But one school board member, Christopher Barclay was reportedly hostile to the idea (see editor’s note below).

Barclay was, in reporter Bill Turque’s words, “offended by the notion that students of color could thrive only if surrounded by more middle-class and affluent whites.”  Barclay told the reporter, “I don’t believe in white supremacy.”  Boundary changes to achieve greater integration would simply hide “pockets of need” within diverse schools.  “I don’t want kids shipped all over the world,” Barclay said.

These concerns are not those of a white right-wing segregationist from Mississippi but rather a thoughtful African American Montgomery County school board member who has in the past served as president of the board.  These issues deserve respectful consideration.  Take each in turn:


  • Underlying the idea of school integration are notions of white supremacy:  that black children will do better if they sit next to white students in class.

School board member Barclay is right to suggest it is highly insulting to think that black and Latino students somehow benefit academically from being around children whose skin happens to be white.  But that is not why most people advocate school integration.  First, schools are about more than boosting test scores.  A big part of the reason to want racial integration is that we want children to learn to get along with students of all different backgrounds and to reduce racial and ethnic prejudice.  White students benefit, just as black and Latino students do, from this interaction.

Second, on the narrower question of academic achievement, the evidence has suggested not that black students benefit from being around white students but rather that low-income students of all races benefit from being in a middle-class school setting – in which students are, on average, more academically engaged, parents are more likely to volunteer in class and participate in school affairs, and stronger teachers typically are found. As UCLA professor Gary Orfield noted long ago, “educational research suggests that the basic damage inflicted by segregated education comes not from racial concentration but the concentration of children from poor families.”

  • Integration will simply serve to hide the needs of underachieving students.

Barclay is correct that in the past, when schools reported average student test scores, the lower scores of disadvantaged students were often hidden, to their detriment.  But one of the important advances in federal educational policy is the “disaggregation” of test scores by race and economic status.  Now, if a school as a whole is doing well but certain racial, ethnic, or economic subgroups are not, the inequality will be in plain sight for everyone to see.

Moreover, powerful evidence suggests that low-income students will perform much better, on average, in middle-class schools.  A 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz of RAND Corporation found that students from families randomly assigned to public housing units in Montgomery County performed much better in math when they lived in lower-poverty neighborhoods and attended lower-poverty schools, even though higher poverty schools in Montgomery spend more per pupil. About two-thirds of the positive effect was associated with attending a low-poverty school and one-third with living in a low-poverty neighborhood.

  • We shouldn’t “ship” kids “all over the world.”

In the early days of desegregation, some programs did “ship” kids around, as Barclay suggests, giving their families no say in the matter.  Today, however, intelligently designed integration programs try to achieve their goal through parental choice.  In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a socioeconomic integration program avoids compulsory busing.  Instead, parents choose among a variety of schools, each with a different pedagogical approach or theme, and 90% of parents get one of their first three choices.  Montgomery County should explore expanding magnet programs and using choice to bring about greater diversity in its schools.

Likewise, in Montgomery County, it is possible to achieve greater levels of socioeconomic integration by adjusting boundaries of nearby schools.  For example, as Joe Hawkins points out in his recent blog post for Bethesda Now, the County already plans to build a new elementary school in the White Flint area.  Thinking strategically about the placement of the school and the drawing of boundaries could promote economic integration in a way that would not inconvenience children or ship them anywhere.

School board member Christopher Barclay’s concerns are important and legitimate but today, there are ways to shape integration programs – by emphasizing socioeconomic status over race, and choice over compulsory busing — to gain the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Barclay has been invited to respond to this post and plans to provide another post to appear in this blog shortly.  MoCoEdBlog invites other perspectives to this and other topics of interest.

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