OLOWSKI: Maryland’s Howard County Seeks To Segregate Students By Income

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The government should not force a child to switch schools because of his family’s socioeconomic status. Yet Howard County, Maryland — the third-highest income county in the United States — is pushing a redistricting scheme that uproots 7,300 students by redrawing school boundaries on the basis of family income, and, consequently, race. County officials say such discrimination solves “socioeconomic and racial segregation in the school system.”

That pretext, however, is not true. In 2017, the Baltimore Sun reported that “Howard County is the most integrated school district in the region … Children of different races — especially those who are black and white — are more likely to sit next to each other in Howard than almost anywhere else in the state.” Integration challenges persist with respect to honors enrollment: but not in the social or demographic makeup of the schools. The schools are, in fact, diverse.

Officials exploit this diversity to insist that the county is segregated. For example, Howard County contains both high-income and low-income neighborhoods, a fact reflected in the schools’ demographic makeup. That disparity — which would not exist if the county were homogeneously wealthy or poor — is condemned. So the superintendent’s redistricting proposal alters the distribution of low-income families across schools in pursuit of equity.

However, under the county’s own metrics, the superintendent’s plan actually exacerbates racial segregation. A draft resolution supported by a majority in the county government says segregated schools are “defined as schools where less than 40 percent of the student population is white.”

Under this metric, 43 schools in Howard County are racially segregated because they do not contain enough white people. The superintendent’s redistricting plan would increase this number to 45. Yet, perversely, the school where racial composition most closely matches that of the county overall — the school is 37 percent white, 27 percent black, and 19 percent Asian — is deemed segregated. But the school that is most racially homogenous — where students are 79 percent white and less than 5 percent of each other racial group — is not considered segregated.

Redistricting for socioeconomic equity also jeopardizes resources reserved for low-income families. Howard County receives federal funds under the “Title I” program, which it distributes on a school-by-school basis at the elementary schools with the highest percentage of students from low-income families. The superintendent insists his redistricting plan does not reduce the amount of money received under this program. But the plan moves hundreds of families away from schools receiving Title I support, including low-income families. It thus deprives these families of resources specifically intended to help them.

If the plan achieves its goal of reducing the number of low-income families at certain schools, then some of those schools could lose their Title I status altogether. It’s projected to happen to at least one elementary school. That could reduce the amount of money invested in those schools.

It would also discourage teachers from working there. Maryland awards up to $30,000 per teacher who works in a Title I school to repay their student loans. If a school loses its Title I status then it could miss out on talented educators the state recruited to help students at these schools.

At the same time, the plan also removes children from schools in high-income neighborhoods and assigns them to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Yet many families in these high-income neighborhoods joined the community solely to attend their status quo schools. For example, in the River Hill school district — the high school with the county’s highest test scores — hundreds of these families’ children are cast farther away: to the county’s lowest-scoring school. But high-income families have a Plan B: they could enroll their children in private school, or leave the county altogether.

And that, ultimately, may be the point. County officials criticize expensive real-estate developments as a problem that needs solving. One of the county’s representatives to the state legislature, Sen. Clarence Lam, said the status quo protects “wealth” and these families should not expect to send their children to their status quo schools because the Board of Education “are not wealth managers, they are educators.”

Accordingly, officials at the Board of Education have “agreed that equity should be first the first consideration” in redistricting, while “the public will decide what they will do” with respect to attending private schools or homeschooling.

If it is a problem for high-income families to invest in expensive developments near high-scoring schools, then redistricting on the basis of socioeconomic equity will surely solve it.

Lew Olowski is an attorney and formerly a clerk to Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Lew served under Peter Robinson, who is among the world’s premiere international criminal trial lawyers litigating war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. He is a graduate of Georgetown Law School.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.