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How School Districts Put Politics Before Children

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Many people wary of government power rightly criticize public schools for being more indoctrination than education. When the institution is fully dependent on the state for support, why would any ideas be put forth that could put their lifeblood in jeopardy? On education, Mises wrote in Human Action:

…as soon as one wants to go farther [than elementary notions of geometry, the natural sciences, and the valid laws of the country], serious difficulties appear. Teaching at the elementary level necessarily turns into indoctrination. It is not feasible to represent to adolescents all the aspects of a problem and to let them choose between dissenting views…The party that operates the schools is in a position to propagandize its tenets and to disparage those of other parties.

However, one aspect of public education that is not often discussed is the potential insidiousness of school districting. In the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) in Maryland this insidiousness is coming brazenly out in the open.

Without much fanfare, schools routinely get their districts tweaked every few years to balance out school capacity as students age in and out. Back in August 2019, however, the HCPSS superintendent unveiled a radical redistricting plan that seeks to more evenly distribute students across the county by household income. In the superintendent’s own words, “Previous redistricting processes focused more narrowly on capacity utilization and other factors such as socioeconomics took a back seat. This proposal is…leading with equity as the driver to provide all students with full access and opportunity to receive the best educational services and supports.”

Having school capacity take a back seat, the proposal looks at the percentage of students in the Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) program at a given school as a gauge for socio-economic status. If the percentage is higher than desired, “polygons” (the subdistricts in the county allocated to a particular school) would be moved from that school’s district to another school’s district where the FARM percentage is less, and vice versa. For many, this will mean leaving their neighborhood school and going to a school farther away. Thus, a flurry of polygons are potentially shuffling around for the sake of equity.

The legislative body of Howard County is the Howard County Council. Three council members recently introduced a resolution called CR-112 in support of the redistricting plan that made things even more explicit, bringing race into the equation: “…[the Council] supports the Howard County Board of Education and Howard County Public School System in their efforts to lawfully integrate through the boundary review process and focus their efforts and resources to close the achievement gaps and racial and economic disparities in the Howard County Public School System.”

Fallacies of the Proposal

CR-112 cites the landmark Supreme Court case “Brown v. Board of Education” as justification. Unfortunately, the irony of that case is lost on the council: Oliver Brown sued the school board with the NAACP because his daughter was being bused far away to a segregated school, when there was a neighborhood school close to his house.

CR-112 also is arguably going against a 2007 supreme court decision, which forbade local school systems from integrating schools compulsorily based on race. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” said Chief Justice John Roberts at the time. The superintendent’s proposal, on the other hand, slyly avoids this pitfall by not explicitly referring to race, but focusing on socio-economic status.

Wanting to bring busing back into fashion, the superintendent is willing to accept a $2.76 million increase in transportation costs for busing students further distances in the name of equity. The cynical among us might wonder if just dividing the $2.76 million among the less affluent students could be more effective (and greener). The increased busing puts some families in a strange position where their kids will be transported right by their closest high school on the way to their newly districted high school (this sounds eerily similar to a famous Supreme Court case). Some families will have 3, 4, or 5 high schools in closer proximity than their districted high school.

Furthermore, Howard County has some notable characteristics that make this redistricting situation especially amusing. The redistricting proposal calls for greater socioeconomic equality, but Howard County is the third richest county in the United States as of 2018. Might other US counties call on Howard County to spread their wealth around?

The county council calls for “racial integration,” but the schools are already incredibly diverse. The county-wide average of white students in the elementary, middle, and high schools is only 34%, 36%, and 39% respectively (pages 25-26 of the superintendent’s proposal). One could rightly ask the question, what are the “correct” demographics, and why? What is the goal the proposal seeks to achieve?

In a free society, if there was a local school that didn’t live up to a family’s standards, they could just choose another nearby school. There would be no school districts. But in this society of public schools, what is a family’s only option if they don’t like the local school and private or home school is not a good option? In many cases, though not all, they have to move to a different area. This is a pretty drastic measure, and some are willing to do it. However, when the public school bureaucracy has the power to radically change the school districts according to their whims, what hope will families have that even moving to a different neighborhood will get them into a better school?

Fortunately, the opposition to this proposal in Howard County has been overwhelming. Many protests have happened across the county with national media taking notice. Hundreds and hundreds of parents and students have written letters and testified before the Board of Education. The Board of Education will make a final decision on the proposal in late November 2019.

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