Fighting Segregation in a Progressive Stronghold

In March, a consultant hired by the Montgomery County Board of Education will present their recommendations for alleviating racial discrimination in that Maryland county’s schools. If you want to know what life in America will look like in the decades after Trump, this looming battle offers hints.

Montgomery County, in the DC suburbs, ranks 11th in the nation in median family income. It ranks 3rd in education level, with almost a third of its residents holding a post-graduate degree. Fewer than 1 in 5 voters supported Trump. Montgomery County is, by all accounts, a Democratic stronghold.

Only a third of the students in the county’s schools are white, however by some magic almost two thirds of the county’s white high school students attend a majority white, or plurality white school. Almost half of Latino students attend schools that are majority or plurality Latino. Turns out, like any other affluent community, Montgomery County’s schools are heavily segregated.

This segregation has measurable, material impacts. A realignment of school boundaries would not only alleviate this problem, it would bring some balance between under-utilized schools and crowded facilities in neighboring districts. Resource disparities that accompany this segregation also cause measurable damage, depressing outcomes for students in the under-invested districts. If no one had ever heard of race, then this district remapping would be an obviously necessary move. We don’t live in that kind of world.

Last January, Ananya Tadikonda, the board’s student member, courageously raised the issue of segregation at a board meeting. Being a solidly Democratic community with a powerful progressive presence, her boldness in addressing this issue should have been welcomed. Thing is, people tend to be “progressive” right up to the moment they discover the price tag.

Tadikonda’s request that the board formally review options for addressing segregation touched off a contentious debate in the community, a debate that isn’t resolved. Tensions were primed by the experience of neighboring Howard County, where an effort to redraw district boundaries to relieve segregation brought the snakes out of the woodpile.

Though it’s fun to chuckle at the hypocrisy of a performatively progressive community struggling with its own racism, we shouldn’t miss the more important point. These are the only places in America where this fight could even be waged right now. What makes this story interesting is not the racist backlash, but the fact that these localities are able to stage such a debate at all. This battle in Maryland to move past virtue-signaling toward tangible progress is a crucial test of sincerity and will.

In the world that emerges from the Trump disaster, who will be willing to carry the weight of progress where it really matters, in our neighborhoods? Who is going to tackle the problems white supremacy has spawned in zoning, mortgage finance, school funding, higher education and transportation? Today, self-described “progressives” are gutting efforts to achieve progress in Berkeley and Seattle to preserve their personal investments and chase ideological unicorns. The embarrassing spectacle staged in Oakland Tuesday, where “progressive” activists hijacked the Mayor’s announcement of support for zoning reform, portends a grim future for the progressive movement.

All over the country, progressives are loudest about the subjects that cost them personally the least. They are quick to chase rainbows and slow to reckon with facts or dig into difficult details. You can count on a progressive to noisily announce their preferred pronoun or post pictures of their locally-sourced vegan meal, but when it’s time to tackle thorny issues with broad implications that might potentially cost them something, you better not bet on their help. That has to change.

Keep an eye on the news out of Montgomery County this spring. If the local school board, empowered by an overwhelming progressive majority, can chart to path out of their persistent racial segregation, their success might be a playbook for others. If they can’t, it’s hard to imagine who can.

16 Comments

      1. I just can’t grok this. Harry and Megan give me the impression that they’re nice, caring people who want to use their position for good. Granted this is an impression gained from paying partial attention to the TV while doing other things, but given the unholy mess their uncle Prince Andrew put himself in, people ought to get some perspective. I had never heard of Markle before she married Prince Harry (following celebs isn’t my thing), but I don’t see any reason for people to be nasty to her based on anything she’s done. Obviously marrying into that family puts you in the public fishbowl (something I would hate), but it sounds like this treatment was beyond what a reasonable person could expect. I wish them good luck. Sometimes people totally suck.

  1. I would suggest that instead of trying to “desegregate” that you try and do what we do here (NZ)

    Here Schools are awarded a “Decile number” based on the wealth of their catchment area
    Then the funds for the schools are allocated with the poorer areas getting MORE funds

    The result has been that our schools are very similar in performance the best schools are not that much better than the worst

    Inside the schools we do still have too much variation with Maori not achieving as well as Pakeha

    But at least it’s not determined by which school you go to

    1. That’s the framework they used in neighboring Howard County, and it worked in the end. They’ll be launching new district boundaries this fall. However, it didn’t fool anybody. They may call it “urban” music, but everyone knows that means black. Everyone in Howard County knew they were redesigning the school system to address racial discrimination, and they fought it as you’d expect.

      In the long run, that’s the approach that will be necessary if you believe that racism will melt away in time, leaving a reality of just class differences. But a lot of black activists push back pretty hard on the idea of looking past race to class right now, and they have a point.

      1. When I served on the school board, we created a weighted system for our budget for materials of instruction for the 40 schools in our district. Economic and racial factors were developed by staff for board approval. This helped the schools in poor areas with a large percentage of their students receiving “free lunch”, but it was clearly no substitute for schools that enjoyed affluent parent support for fundraising and special projects. It never is. As the principle of one majority black primary school shared with me: “Her parents and faculty feltvtgey had a very successful fundraiser when they raised $400. Across town, a similar effort would raise thousands.” She was not bitter but she was realistic about the challenges the faculty faced in trying to provide a quality education for the students at their school.

  2. I’d like to share a personal experience which proved that fairness can be achieved around racial issues. In the late eighties, I became involved in an effort to change existing public school district attendance lines that had resulted from a federal segregation challenge. Busing was involved but mostly of black children into white neighborhood schools. The lines failed to account for housing and development changes in a growing community which resulted in districts that were locked out of growth and infusion of new students. As a result, schools in these landlocked circumstances were losing students, resulting in empty classrooms, reduced academic choices, and unequal educational access – a “no no”in the era of school desegregation. It not only unfairly impacted the quality of education of children in “dying” schools, but it was an enormous waste of taxpayer dollars. We lived in this district and our children were being impacted.

    To correct this educational inequity, the local school board would have to approve a plan for a new district design that would pass federal approval and achieve community support. The sole two black board members (out of 14 total board members) recognized the opportunity this process could engender for their children, who had largely borne the brunt of the original desegregation decree They offered a vehicle they believed could be successful.

    They wisely suggested to their reluctant white fellow board members that a bi-racial Committee be formed, consisting of seven white and seven black members of the community who would be independently nominated from a Board-approved list of respected community organizations. It was my privilege to be named and serve on this committee. The members were chosen well. Everyone was genuinely interested in trying to develop recommendations that would benefit all children, regardless of race, as the highest priority (rather than politics). We met weekly and had frank, honest discussions. We developed trust in each other and in our common goal to serve all children. After one year of weekly meetings, we drafted a summary report of our recommendations- not for a specific rezoning plan- but, rather, of guidelines that should be followed if the school board decided to proceed to this step. Tensions were high, politics rampant, as board members began hearing from their constituents. In the meantime, the biracial committee proposed redistricting guidelines had to be submitted to the federal judge who presided over the existing court -ordered school district. ( This was a very astute inclusion in the original proposal by the black board members in the motion to create the biracial committee.) The white Board members saw the Biracial Committee as buying them political cover and time and approved the proposal as written.

    The next step involved review of the biracial committee guidelines by the presiding federal judge. He gave it his resounding approval, noting that he felt the guidelines should become a template for all rezoning efforts in the nation. The board then had to vote to amend, accept or reject the biracial committee’’s guidelines approved by the federal judge, which was going to be tough to turn down. They approved the guidelines as submitted and agreed to move forward with a rezoning study – again thinking they were buying more time for inaction. (Board opponents believed any changes in the status quo would kill redistricting due to community rejection .) After numerous (rancorous) meetings in the community and in formal school board committee sessions, a final vote was taken and the plan passed, 8-6. Community upheaval ensued but there was one more step in the process . The approved rezoning plan, designed on the biracial committee guidelines, was submitted to and approved by the federal judge. Feelings were decidedly mixed in the community with both anger and thankfulness that the “system “ had worked.
    It was done.

    This was one of the most important civic contributions of my life. It proved to me that government can work; it can be fair; and that participation by good people can help government succeed for all people . It has informed and guided my view of Democracy up until now. I do not know if such an effort would be successful in today’s political climate, but I am eternally grateful for my opportunity to be a part of the process. It is my hope that America can return to such times one day. It’s why I am both hopeful and discouraged at what is possible in our country despite the egregious abuses of fairness and decency.

      1. Thank you, BoBo. It took time but our committee didn’t rush. The most important investment was in building trust across races and, to an extent, classes, due to the inherent economic sectors we represented. . We all were good listeners and we shared a common goal. We just needed to build trust. Once our little group achieved this, the nitty gritty work of developing guidelines was easy.

        Ironically, I was recruited to run for a seat on the School Board a couple of years later (After working to get the board to reduce its size, which was almost as daunting as achieving rezoning, but got it done.) It was a four-year, demanding term and I didn’t seek re-election. My year plus of service on the Bi-Racial Committee was far more important to me and, really, to my community than my four years on the school board. Sometimes you can be more effective outside the political body. Prior to being elected to the board, I was pleased to partner with the local chamber to apply for and get a significant federal grant that we used to establish a Public Education Foundation that is still functioning today, almost thirty years later. This foundation offers the opportunity for teachers at all community schools to apply for competitive classroom grants, for fun projects, which was really important to schools in the poor, mostly minority areas. This is how you build you build trust.

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