On the morning of May 14, the Montgomery County Council was wrapping up its work on the school system’s $2.6 billion operating budget for the new fiscal year with Superintendent Jack Smith and other administrators. Seated at a table in front of the council dais, Smith had just run through a litany of recent initiatives and improvements in academic achievements when at-large Councilmember Nancy Floreen spoke up.
She told Smith that even though the operating premise of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is that all schools are equal, she does “not believe that is the public perception.”
“I think we need to fix that,” she said.
Floreen was calling attention to a growing belief among public school families that inequities exist in a county that is increasingly divided by race and class. She said she has seen uneven access to course offerings, special programs and high-quality teachers and school leaders, particularly in schools in the less affluent eastern part of the county, “get worse and worse and worse” during her 16 years on the council.
“Public perception makes a big difference in how people choose to locate and how Montgomery County is viewed,” she warned.
Then she brought up an issue that few county leaders and school officials have dared to discuss publicly: changing boundaries so that lower-income students could have access to schools with more advantaged students.
“I hope you and the [school] board will have the strength and the political courage to start looking at boundary changes,” she said. “This is the third rail of Montgomery County, but it is a serious rail in terms of economic opportunity for our kids and how our families perceive the value of education that’s offered in those high school districts.”
Floreen’s call to action wasn’t news to Smith, who has taken on the continuing challenge of ensuring that all students receive equal learning opportunities and access to high-quality teachers and instruction since he took over as superintendent in July 2016. “The unevenness, especially across elementary schools, is critical and something we must take on,” he told Floreen, noting that MCPS was developing an “individual school accountability model” that was expected to unmask inconsistencies that may be hidden in statistics that lump the performance of schools together.
That cheered Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who reminded everyone that concentrations of poverty also exist elsewhere in the county and that the upcoming school analysis would help “get to the root” of why some schools weren’t performing as well as others. “You cannot underestimate the impact that poverty has on academic achievement,” she said.
MCPS—the state’s largest school district and the 14th largest in the country—is not alone as it confronts the complex issue of inequity in the classroom and growing racial and economic segregation among its 206 schools. Sixty-four years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation with its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the country’s public schools remain segregated by race and income, and the number of schools with mostly poor and minority students is increasing, according to federal officials.
Within MCPS, racial and economic segregation has “been a longstanding problem” exacerbated by housing patterns, says Richard Kahlenberg, a Bethesda resident and senior fellow at The Century Foundation—a self-described progressive, nonpartisan think tank—who has often written about MCPS. “Montgomery County is like much of the nation. It has distinct neighborhoods that have different economic and racial makeups. And the schools reflect that segregation because most students attend their neighborhood public school,” he says.
Since enrollment and the diversity of the MCPS student population began expanding in the early 1980s, district officials and the county school board have obtained mixed results in working to ensure that black and Hispanic children are achieving at the same level as their white and Asian peers, and that all students are receiving equitable learning opportunities. By the mid-1990s, a school system that had been mostly white had an enrollment of about 120,000 students, with more than 40 percent identifying as black, Hispanic or Asian and about 25 percent receiving free or reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty known as the FARMS rate.
When Jerry Weast took over as MCPS superintendent in 1999, the school system began to make strides in closing the so-called achievement gap between white and Asian students and black and Hispanic students while also increasing achievement among top students. Weast’s data-driven reform efforts during his 12-year tenure, which were the focus of a Harvard study published as a 2009 book, called for more spending and resources at schools with the most needs and included reducing class sizes and implementing all-day kindergarten. The school system was divided into “red zone” schools that served a mostly minority population with a higher poverty rate in the eastern part of the county, and “green zone” schools in the wealthier western portion.
Hired in 2011, Superintendent Joshua Starr began shifting MCPS away from a primarily data-driven approach to one that also focused on social-emotional learning as he sought to provide all students with a quality education that would ensure they were college ready when they graduated from high school. Recognized for his efforts to eliminate student tracking—the practice of placing students in classes based on academic ability rather than in mixed-ability classes—in his former school district in Stamford, Connecticut, Starr introduced initiatives that included focusing on chronically underperforming schools and identifying children as early as first grade who were not on track to graduate. At his suggestion, the school board commissioned a study to examine access to the district’s magnet programs and so-called “choice” programs that students can choose to attend outside their home schools.
But Starr ran into trouble with critics who thought he wasn’t moving the needle fast enough, and he resigned in early 2015 when it became clear the school board would not renew his contract. Larry Bowers, MCPS’s longtime chief operating officer, took over while the board searched for a permanent replacement.
By the time the 2016-2017 school year began, Smith was at the helm of a district with almost 159,000 students. Thirty percent of students were Hispanic, outnumbering every other racial and ethnic group, and the once nearly all-white school system was majority minority. Nearly 35 percent of the students received free and reduced-price meals—more students than the total enrollment of the D.C. public schools at the time. According to Smith, about 30 county elementary schools are Title I schools, meaning the district receives federal funding to provide extra resources and create smaller class sizes at those schools. In areas where the poverty rates are higher, schools are often called upon to provide social services as well as instruction; MCPS has opened wellness centers in some schools to meet the health needs of families, and individual schools provide meals and collect clothing to ensure that their students are properly clothed and fed so they can focus on learning.
“When I speak to groups across the county, people in Bethesda or Kensington are shocked that there are so many people living in poverty in Montgomery County,” says school board member Patricia O’Neill of Bethesda, who’s running for a sixth term in the November election.
Meanwhile, home sale prices in the county continue to rise—particularly in the western portion where the average sale price in Bethesda in 2017 was more than $1.1 million, effectively pricing out many families from the high school clusters that are home to what many residents consider the district’s top-performing high schools.
Though MCPS is still considered one of the top systems in the nation, and the county council is supportive of efforts to boost resources—agreeing to fully fund the school budget in fiscal year 2019—the gap between the academic performance of students in higher-income areas versus schools where income rates are lower remains.
“By any measure, clearly a gap exists, and clearly if I was a parent of a black or brown child, I would say, ‘How come my kid isn’t doing as well as my friends who have white and Asian kids? What’s going on?’ ” says Christopher Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), the union that represents county teachers. “You would be forced to ask those questions.”