The Lesson DC Schools Could Teach Montgomery County: A Response to Chris Barclay on School Integration

Written by: Rick Kahlenberg

As Montgomery County schools consider ways to reduce the achievement and opportunity gaps by race and income, it might take a page from the Washington, D.C. public schools — not often thought of as a model for Montgomery.

Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has approved a new school boundary policy that includes an important equity provision to give at-risk students a chance to attend more affluent schools.  As the Washington Post noted in an article Friday:

“The plan sets aside at least 10 percent of seats in every elementary school for out-of-boundary students, along with 15 percent of middle school seats and 20 percent of high school seats.  The plan says that at risk students should have a preference in the lottery for 25 percent of all out-of-boundary seats in any given year in more affluent schools.”

“At risk” students are defined as those who are “in foster care, homeless, in families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), in families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), or are high school students who are more than one year over-age for their grade.”

(D.C. Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser says she has concerns that the overall plan does not do enough to promote educational equality and reform.  In an article outlining her concerns, there was no mention of the set aside plan).

As I argued in an earlier blog post, there is compelling evidence that policies of socioeconomic integration can produce better outcomes for low-income students, and that middle-class students can benefit as well from being in a diverse environment.

Longtime Montgomery County School Board member Chris Barclay, in a thoughtful response to my post, suggested, with important caveats, that he agrees with the thrust of the objective.  “Economic diversity is a laudable goal for our schools, and eliminating economic isolation will be good for all students,” he writes.  He later notes that there is “evidence that low-income students in lower-poverty schools do better than low-income students in high-poverty schools.  No arguments there.”

But Mr. Barclay emphatically suggests that socioeconomic integration programs, and education policies in general, must recognize “the impact of race on ourselves and the way we see the world.”  He suggests, “Racism is a factor in education that cannot be eradicated by a silver bullet or putting our heads in the sands.”  When we talk about the results of a  2010 Century Foundation study of Montgomery County schools by Heather Schwartz on the benefits of economically disadvantaged students attending affluent schools, he says, we must recognize that “the high-poverty students in low-poverty schools are almost definitely Black and Hispanic going to predominantly White and Asian schools.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Barclay on the continuing significance race in American society.   One need look no farther than housing patterns.  Researchers find that even middle-income African Americans live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than low-income whites.   As a result, minority students are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools than white students, as the Economic Policy Institute’s Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss find.  While only 5 percent of white kindergartners attend high-poverty elementary schools, 57% of black kindergartners do.  Likewise, in Heather Schwartz’s Century Foundation study of Montgomery County schools, 72% of students from families in public housing were African American.

I also agree with Mr. Barclay that we need to focus on “changing behaviors and actions of the adults.”  Integration doesn’t work just by plunking kids of different backgrounds together.  Adults need professional development to help them capitalize on racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in the classroom to allow all children to reach their potential.

So why do I nevertheless emphasize integration by socioeconomic status?  First, the social science evidence suggests that a socioeconomic mix is the key to raising academic achievement.  Evidence suggests that a school that is beautifully integrated by race but is 100% poor is likely to struggle.  Second, as a matter of constitutional law, integration plans that emphasize socioeconomic are far less legally vulnerable than plans assigning students by race.

Mr. Barclay concludes by arguing that poverty concentrations should be addressed through housing policy rather than schooling.  “Changing the dynamic of the geographic concentrations of poverty in Montgomery County is not a function that the school system can address,” he argues.  I agree that housing policies – like Montgomery’s inclusionary zoning plans – are critical.  But today one-quarter of students attend schools other than the closest public school, so there is a great deal school districts can do to promote integration through public school choice.

Montgomery County prides itself on having the best schools in in the Washington D.C. area.  To preserve that place, however, the County must grapple with rising economic segregation, as Mayor Gray is beginning to in D.C.  The achievement gap by race and class is not inevitable; it is the product of inequalities of opportunity.  And a part of the solution involves giving more low-income students a chance to attend high-quality, middle-class schools.

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