School Boundaries: A Most Explosive Political Question

Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a series of seven guest posts from Sunil Dasgupta on the discussions surrounding the possibility of changing the boundaries of Montgomery County’s public schools.

Montgomery County’s population is not only principally center-left, but also highly educated and employed in professions requiring years of training and the accretion of intellectual capital. Not surprisingly, they have an absolute belief in the necessity of high-quality education in preparing their children for a globally competitive labor market.

Toward this end, parent groups organized geographically, and therefore reflecting geographical socioeconomic differences, fight to preserve the quality of their schools, even if it comes at the expense of other schools in other parts of the county.

Speaking on a parallel debate on the expansion of the prestigious International Baccalaureate programs, for example, a county PTA leader argued that more IB programs in the county would dilute the value of the countywide magnet program at Richard Montgomery High School, in the eyes of college admissions officers

She was calling for a slowdown in the introduction of new IB programs. Like other magnet programs, the IB program at Richard Montgomery skews white and Asian and, for proponents of exclusivity, the lack of diversity is an acceptable cost of having a highly recognized and select program.

The school system allocates a standard amount of money per student. The equal division of money, however, does not result in equitable outcomes where those with the greatest need receive the most funds. Federal Title 1 schools and MCPS’s self-designated Focus schools receive extra money, which also fall short in the face of the challenges the students and schools face.

One significant point of inequity is that good teachers with years of experience move to, and remain at, schools where parents are better organized. The better-organized parent groups are also able to secure funding for capital spending and, in some cases, they raise significant money from amongst themselves to support the school.

But all of this requires that boundaries remain fixed or these efforts would dissipate. This imperative manifests in official discussions as the need to preserve the integrity of the school communities, even when preserving the integrity of one community may cost a neighboring school community staff and programs because student enrollments are low.

Concerns about home value match the intense belief in the importance of education quality. The southwestern parts of the county have higher home values in large part due to the belief, reiterated by rankings and real-estate lore, that the schools there are better. The prospect of boundary change alarms families who paid a price premium and fear reduction in home values.

Since it is hard to tell who will be rezoned and who will not as part of a boundary change effort, families in areas that potentially could be rezoned have a great incentive to hang together to oppose any rezoning. School boundary change then comes to be viewed as a threat to the community itself and mobilizes its members to rise up in defense. 

In contrast, those who would gain from school boundary change have been less organized to begin with. They live in less wealthy areas, have less education, and have jobs that require more physical presence. Many are newly arrived (though there are significant new immigrant groups on the other side as well), divided by national origin, language and social networks, and do not have a way to envision a path to effectively press their demands.

It is also unclear how changing school boundaries would bring benefits for their children now. For schools to become better, many things need to come together: Parents have to become involved, the principal has to be extraordinary, teacher morale and quality have to improve, and new resources have to be secured.

These future benefits accrue in the out years, by which time the children of current MCPS families have already graduated. Other benefits such as good citizenship, diversity, and equity are abstract ideas less able to mobilize advocates in the face of the clear and present danger seen by boundary change opponents.

The mismatch between intensity of the threat perceived by opponents of boundary change and possibility of the benefits perceived by its advocates has meant that MCPS has not had significant boundary change in decades. After spending a few days trying to track down the origins of the current school boundaries, I gave up and settled for a starting point in my own lifetime: The last big set of boundary changes occurred from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, as MCPS adjusted to demographic changes at that time.

This is the story I have. MCPS reached a peak of 127,000 students during the post-World War II baby boom. The school system built a number of small community schools to accommodate the enrollment surge. But by the mid-70s, enrollment tapered off and the school system closed 65 schools. The student count fell to its lowest of 90,000 somewhere in the mid- to late-1980s.

Alongside these closures, and arguably motivated by it, MCPS also moved away from its primary, junior high, and high school classification. Thereafter, elementary schools have housed K-5, with sixth graders going to middle schools; the new middle schools housed Grade 6 to Grade 8, and high schools 9-12.

These changes necessitated boundary adjustments. Decisions regarding which schools to close and where to reassign students were gut-wrenching. Old hands still believe that the wounds of that war have not healed to this day, making boundary change more explosive than any other political question in the county.

Tomorrow: Stability, Choice, and the Achievement Gap

Sunil Dasgupta teaches political science at University of Maryland-Baltimore County and is an MCPS parent. He can be reached on Twitter @sunildasgupta4.

Photo by Mike Diegel

We are expanding our coverage, and we need your help. Click here for more information.

Read More:
Council Appoints Rubin to Full Term on Planning Board

Sign up for our
Free Email Newsletters!

Stay connected to your community through our free email newsletters!
Emails are delivered daily to our 2,541 subscribers.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.