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

Florida Governor Rick Scott greets, Alejandra Martinez,10, (L) and Andrea Santos, 10, as he visits a 5th grade class at the Southside Elementary School on August 27, 2014 in Miami, Florida.
Florida Governor Rick Scott greets, Alejandra Martinez,10, (L) and Andrea Santos, 10, as he visits a 5th grade class at the Southside Elementary School on August 27, 2014 in Miami, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As of the 2010 census, Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., is the state’s most populous county and home to the largest school system, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), in the state. The last census pegged the population at 971,777 with the population projected to reach 1,075,000 by 2020. The 2010 census also found the population to be 57.5% white, 13.9% Asian, 17.2% black, and 17.0% Hispanic. A decade previously, in 2000, the county comprised of 64.8% whites, 11.3% Asian, 15.1% black, and 11.5% Hispanics.

Enrollment in MCPS over this period shows an interesting trend. White enrollment went from 65,849 in the year 2000 to approximately 50,000 in 2010—a drop of 24%, compared to the 2000 figures. A perusal of the annual Schools at a Glance report published by the district further hints at “white-flight” from MCPS.

The western part of the county is dotted with expensive private schools with names like Landon, Bullis, Mater Dei, Holton Arms, Holy Child, and the likes. The enrollment at these schools is predominantly white. Wealthy parents who can afford to send their children to these schools have been generous with their taxes which, for the most part, fund the public school system.

In May 2012, it was reported that at “$89,155, Montgomery County’s median household income is nearly five percent lower than in 1999, when it was $93,627 adjusted for inflation,” and the county “ranks fifth in the Washington, D.C. metro area and ninth nationwide in median household income.” In 2014, it was not on the Forbes list of the top ten America’s richest counties.

While the wallets in the county were shrinking, the population that relied on social services was burgeoning. For example, in 1985, the number of students applying for free and reduced price meals—widely accepted as a proxy for a measure of poverty, was 11,176. By 2011, it had risen to 47,365. Over the same period, the number of students reporting English as a second language (ESOL) went from 4,133 to 19,182.

Clearly, MCPS was fiscally confined to the gilded cage of real estate values, while facing increasing demands on the system.

Meanwhile, the academic achievement gap, defined as the difference in academic performance indicators between white or Asian students and minorities (blacks and Hispanics) widened. This reality and the fact that minorities tended to be confined to schools with low white or Asian populations prompted the progressive Century Foundation’s Richard Khalenberg to suggest housing policies as a means of integrating schools.

Khalenberg, like many who seek to justify housing policies as a means to integrating schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, hoists his petard on a 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz of RAND Corporation.
Khalenberg correctly asserts that Schwartz had concluded “that students from families randomly assigned to public housing units in Montgomery County performed much better in math when they lived in lower-poverty neighborhoods and attended lower-poverty schools, even though higher poverty schools in Montgomery spend more per pupil.” The problem with the Schwartz study is that it bases in conclusions on the results of tests of questionable reliability or purpose.

Putting aside the technical issues surrounding the validity of Schwartz report, prudence demands that any solution or solutions to problems associated with the increasing diversity and poverty in the county be fiscally responsible and well-supported by robust research.

Future columns: Voluntary desegregation, what the data shows, etc.