Opinion: Howard County is not segregated

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Hundreds showed up Saturday outside the Columbia mall to protest the Howard County school redistricting plan. Photo by webmaster and blogger Scott Ewart.

Here is one of the commentaries we have received about Howard County schools. Opposing comments and viewpoints are welcome. Send to Len@MarylandReporter.com. The voices of opposition and protest are often louder and more persistent than the voices of support.  

By Lew Jan Olowski

The Howard County superintendent’s redistricting plan forces 7,300 students to switch schools, promoting equity by reducing the presence of low-income families at some schools and increasing their presence at other schools. Many of the plan’s proponents cannot defend it in good faith. Consider the example set by the County Council’s own segregation smear.

A majority of the County Council, and the chair of the Board of Education, urge redistricting to solve “socioeconomic and racial segregation in the school system.”

That pretext is false. Howard County is not segregated. Howard County is diverse.

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.” The Sun reported that integration challenges persist within schools with respect to enrollment in honors classes: but not in the social or demographic makeup of the schools.

Yet the County Council’s draft resolution says segregated schools are “defined as schools where less than 40% of the student population is white.” However, Howard County’s schools serve a majority-minority population.

Mathematically impossible to integrate the schools

Under the County Council’s definition, it is mathematically impossible to integrate the schools.

Applying this standard to the schools today, 43 of them are segregated. Under the superintendent’s redistricting plan, 45 of them would be segregated. This includes the school where racial composition most closely matches that of the county overall: the school is 37% white, 27% black, and 19% Asian. But another school whose population is 79% white and less than 5% of each other racial group—the highest disproportion of any school in the system—is not considered segregated.

Thus, if a redistricting plan instead caused each school to perfectly represent the community’s overall racial composition, then segregation would get even worse. In fact, all 74 general-enrollment schools in the county would be segregated. On average, the elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are 34% white, 36% white, and 39% white, respectively. So, if each school was exactly representative of the system’s overall racial composition, then, according to the County Council’s definition, each school would be segregated.

Perversely, the only way to reduce segregation according to the County Council is to increase segregation according to real-life data. Redistricting to minimize the number of segregated schools—i.e. schools that are less than 40% white—entails concentrating non-white students into the fewest possible schools.

Imposing 1950s segregation

So, in a gross display of its own incompetence, the County Council’s draft resolution effectively calls upon the Board of Education to reimpose 1950’s era segregation upon the children of Howard County. In other words, if the Board of Education commits actual segregation by designating a single “Non-Whites Only” school in each category (elementary, middle, and high school), then it could conceivably ensure every other school in the county meets the County Council’s standard of being more than 40% white.

Actual Jim Crow segregation in Howard County—the kind that was found unconstitutional 65 years ago in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education—could, according to a majority of the County Council, reduce the number of segregated schools down to just 3, from its present-day segregation crisis of 43 segregated schools. One shudders to imagine how they might propose eliminating segregation altogether.

In the long run, the county government must remove itself from the business of demographic engineering and tokenism. Well-intended officials pursuing integration and equity wreak unintended consequences. Examples include both the County Council’s integration resolution and the superintendent’s redistricting plan.

The residents of Howard County are not polygons on a map or chits on a game board. It is unethical for the county government to express contempt for the demographic makeup of its community and an abuse of power for them to manipulate it, no matter how benevolent their motive.

To stop racial discrimination stop discriminating on race

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in one case involving school segregation.

In the short run, residents must deal with the fact that a majority of the County Council and the chair of the Board of Education are unfit for office. These officials urge “lawful efforts” to integrate the schools and they cite Brown v. Board of Education while at the same time libeling our community as racially and socioeconomically segregated and offering a preposterous definition of segregation as “schools where less than 40 percent of the student population is white.”

These officials—councilmembers Christiana Mercer Rigby, Opel Jones, and Deb Jung, and Board of Education chair Mavis Ellis—either: (A) do not understand basic constitutional law; (B) do not know the demographic diversity of their own community; or (C) did not think through the implications of their own attempt at lawmaking.

In all likelihood, the answer is (D): All of the above

Lew Olowski is a Howard County resident and an attorney. His email is lew.jan.olowski@gmail.com