|Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer|
has made no secret of his desire to change who gets
to attend the most coveted schools in areas like
Bethesda and Potomac
On Monday night, BOE members took aim at those same parents. Jill Ortman-Fouse, who ran unsuccessfully for the Council and doesn't face reelection for the Board, also criticized the idea that "when you buy a house, you buy a school. And [parents] even said that in their emails. They said 'I bought my house for that school.'" Chiding those parents, she said, "all of those schools are owned by all of the taxpayers. They aren't owned by certain neighborhoods." She denounced the belief that "only certain kids get to go to those schools." Jeannette Dixon added that "an easy commute to school" should not be a criteria for school assignment.
Board member Judith Docca explicitly called out the "W school" clusters, and said that busing of students must include those students from more affluent families. Of those who spoke during the public comment period prior to the vote, Docca noted, "only one speaker mentioned a W school. And that's where some of the students are that need to interact with some of our other students. That is not happening. When we talk about all students, we mean those students as well. I know that it's not going to be easy to do."
That could be the understatement of the decade. If there's any doubt this move is coordinated between the BOE and councilmembers like Riemer and Rice, note their similar talking points. In 2016, Rice declared that "boundary changes used to be a third rail." Monday night, Ortman-Fouse called redistricting "the third rail."
BOE members acknowledged the new criteria, which would certainly reduce home values in the "W schools" communities, will be a hard sell. Ortman-Fouse referred to parents hitting the "panic button." "There will be unintended outcomes," MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith - who declined to take a position for or against the new criteria - warned, "and we will all live with them."
Smith is usually dead wrong on most topics, having failed to keep students safe or reduce the achievement gap during his term, but he made one of the best points during the discussion. In regards to what most determines student achievement, "the secret is what happens in that classroom," he said.
The superintendent is correct. Busing did not lead to equal education. Instead, we have an achievement gap that persists to this day in America. You can bus a child to another school, but they still come from the same income-level family as they would have in their neighborhood school. If diversity of race or socioeconomic background were the top factor in academic success for a school, Whitman or any number of elite private schools in the area would be among the worst-performing. They are not.
Some proponents of the new criteria are predictably quick to call opponents "racist." In reality, the new criteria is what is racist. This is a dodge by MCPS to avoid the actual challenging work of improving the worst-performing schools in the County. The Council has wasted yet another term, failing to reduce the achievement gap and geographic educational inequities in areas like East County and the Upcounty.
Dropping final exams has already led to MCPS gaining an "Easy A" reputation across the country, according to the Washington Post. This will hurt Montgomery County public school students in the college admissions process over time, if not reversed. Now MCPS is dropping the PARCC tests, for the same harebrained reason that the kids can't pass the tests. Can't pass the test? Get rid of the tests, our County "leaders" say. Can't improve failing schools? Bus kids around to try to artificially-but-slightly boost test scores, even if it causes scores at the top schools to drop.
This is the definition of "the soft bigotry of low-expectations."
As Jaime Escalante proved three decades ago, student groups of any racial or economic background can perform at the highest levels. It's the teacher and the curriculum that make the difference. Contrary to Riemer's claim that there must be rich, white students in a classroom for black and Latino students to excel, Escalante's students achieved high scores without "Richie Rich" sitting at the next desk.
How do we know "the secret is what happens in that classroom," as Smith said? After Escalante left Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, student math performance tanked. Kind of like Algebra test scores in Montgomery County in recent years.
Redistricting and busing could be a post-election surprise for many parents, especially with no accurate media coverage of Monday night's change. Several schools are already due for new or changed assignments before the end of this year, such as those impacted by a new high school opening for Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. The clusters affected in that redistricting will be Wootton, Richard Montgomery, Quince Orchard, Northwest and Gaithersburg. Clarksburg Village #2, another new school, will also be districted this fall. Development pressures in Bethesda and Silver Spring make boundary changes inevitable in those areas, especially with elected officials showing a new boldness to touch that "third rail."
According to board veteran Patricia O'Neill, who voted for the new criteria, boundary changes will be "happening pretty darn soon." Docca referred to the implementation of the new criteria as "the operation."
Impacts of the changes are clear: reduced home values when a particular address no longer guarantees entry to coveted schools, perpetuation of failure at failing schools countywide, longer bus commutes for already-tired students, and a continuing achievement gap.
Can "the operation" be stopped? Yes. By electing Council candidates who oppose this dodge of the County's fundamental responsibility to provide good schools in every neighborhood. If elected, I would use the ultimate power to force the BOE to drop the new criteria. It is the County Council that funds MCPS. The BOE would have a hard time operating with no funding.
If you currently live in an area with coveted schools, your vote on Tuesday, November 6 will literally determine the future value of your home, and the futures of children countywide. We need leaders who won't sidestep the major challenges we face for another four years, including failing schools and an unacceptable achievement gap. The failed solutions of the past won't move us forward into the future.