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Why forced housing is not the solution to the achievement gap - Part I

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Roughly defined by the intersection of Montrose Road and Rockville Pike is a little corner of Montgomery County that is the preferred destination of many immigrants from Israel. Drive through the region and you will see Jewish institutions and shops, not to mention a large private Jewish Day School, and banners advertising speakers of the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Dreyfuss, and others. It is, in every sense, a home away from home for these immigrants from Israel.

If you are strong of heart, and don’t mind being sideswiped by a SUV or two, you can get on your bike and ride down the narrow and winding Bradley Boulevard. You will pass by Burning Tree Country Club, near which David Brooks, of Bobos in Paradise fame once reportedly owned a home. In 2012, Brooks, whose opinions grace the New York Times, uprooted his family and moved to the tony Cleveland Park neighborhood in Washington, D.C. However, stay on Bradley, cross River Road and on your left you will pass the beautiful Congressional Country Club, and ride into the exclusive Avenel, with its private security guards and multi-million dollar homes. The Players Club Potomac at Avanel Farm once home to the Booz Allen Classic golf tournament, sits to your left, nestled among the expensive homes. Congressional Country Club is no slouch, playing host to the Quicken Loans National (formerly the AT&T National), hosted by none other than Tiger Woods.

On the other hand, you could travel up University Boulevard, also known as Route 193— four wheels recommended— and you will pass through Four Corners in Silver Spring to get your fill of pupusas and tortillas. At Four Corners, a church straddles the center and Montgomery Blair High School, the largest high school in the county, sits to its right. This, to the accidental tourist, is another world from Montrose Road. A smorgasbord of countries contribute to the residents of this area and beyond: immigrants from El Salvador, Ethiopia, and others too numerous to mention.

This mosaic of nations, one could say, is the beauty of America and no small part of the allure of Montgomery County, Maryland. This freedom to live where you want, attend the schools that you prefer, and be among those who are likeminded in this multicultural quilt of people, defines Montgomery County, fondly known to the natives as MoCo.

There is a stark reality to this segregation of people: it directly impacts property values and through it the real estate taxes the county pulls into its ample coffers. These coffers empty almost directly into the pockets of Montgomery County Public Schools, approximately 60% of all revenues, by common estimates. That is not to minimize the revenues the county draws from its ubiquitous traffic cameras that ensnare the occasional Ferrari and the omnipresent gas guzzler. Kill the real estate values and you take away the lifeblood of a school system that can afford its own public relations unit, and a superintendent who commands a hefty salary and boats his very own TV show.

The money that the school system commands impacts the taxes levied by the county. Those taxes, in turn, are linked to housing values. Kill the housing market and you kill the goose that lays the golden egg. No one was more attuned to this reality than the previous superintendent of the school system. Arriving in 1999 during the throes of the demographic shift, a politically savvy superintendent, Jerry D. Weast, pioneered the art of promoting the school system. With a fawning press corps that labeled him “a farm boy wunderkind from Kansas who won his first superintendency at 28,” Weast convinced his fans that it is possible to “raise the bar and close the gap.” Detractors called the district “mildly rotten – but marvelously politically correct.” The author of that quote, Robert M. McCarthy, argued that MCPS was, “in fact, trying to achieve equality of educational outcomes through preferential and discriminatory policies and by holding back higher-achieving students.”

McCarthy’s words proved prophetic. Claims of raising the bar and closing the gap, it turns out, were greatly exaggerated. That reality was brought to the forefront of the public consciousness in April 2014, when students marched to bring attention to the growing academic achievement gap. The fact was, as this column highlighted, the gap was never closed, let alone effectively reduced (see also here and here). Despite fawning reports by the Harvard Public Education Leadership Project, there is little evidence in the form of longitudinal studies or peer reviewed reports, demonstrating the success of any of Weast’s “initiatives.” For example, a cohort of students entered the system under Weast’s watch; popularly known as “Jerry’s kids,” they bore the brunt of Weast’s reform efforts. To date, there have been no published studies of the educational outcomes of this group.

Furthermore, Weast’s Seven Keys to College Readiness, touted as the pathway of “deliberate excellence,” during his tenure, is now nowhere to be found on the MCPS website. However, there are indicators that the pathway of deliberate excellence to college readiness is anything but: 44.2% Montgomery County residents enrolled in Maryland public institutions needed remediation.

Another dose of cold water came in the form of a report by the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight. Issued in April, the report highlighted growing racial and economic achievement gaps.

Next: a look at the achievement gap in Montgomery County and the road to a solution.

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