Howard school redistricting plan hurts poor students

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Comments at the end of the article and opposing views are welcome.

By Lew Jan Olowski

Howard County superintendent Michael Martirano proposed a school redistricting plan that hurts poor children by removing them from “Title I” schools where federally-funded programs help children from low-income families.

And the Board of Education spent more taxpayer money on expensive consultants to design this plan than the board allocates individually to most of the county’s poorest elementary schools through the Title I program.

Martirano’s plan would move 7,400 minors across the school system for the sake of socioeconomic equity: reducing the number of children from low-income families at some schools and increasing their number at other schools.

But Howard County already concentrates certain resources at the schools with the highest poverty rates. Any redistricting plan that moves children out of these schools deprives them of access to such need-based academic programs. So even if the Board of Education ultimately rejects Martirano’s original plan, it should also reject any other redistricting plan that follows the Martirano Model of socioeconomic discrimination.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the Board will likely double-down on the Martirano Model. On Thursday, the Board voted in favor of a similar plan by Jennifer Mallo, which also separates hundreds of children from Title I programs intended to help them.

Helping students from low-income families

Specifically, the Title I program provides federal funds to local school districts to help low-income populations. In Howard County, Title I funds are distributed on a school-by-school basis at the elementary schools with the highest poverty rates.

For example, at Talbott Springs Elementary School, Title I funds are spent on teachers to supplement the math and reading faculty. Title I funds also pay for additional staff to promote extra-curricular activities and conduct home visits. And at Swansfield Elementary, Title I funds support a science fair, an after-school homework program, and parent-child reading and math events.

But in order to “balance the poverty rate,” Martirano’s redistricting plan forces hundreds of children out of Title I schools. Those children would lose access to the Title I programs that presently serve them.

The redistricting plan is so disruptive that at least one elementary school is expected to lose its Title I designation altogether because Martirano’s plan replaces hundreds of its low-income families. And only the youngest—and therefore most vulnerable—low-income children in the system are injured under this plan: Howard County allocates Title I support exclusively to elementary schools, not middle schools or high schools.

Moreover, any elementary school that loses its Title I status might also lose eligibility for other programs designed to help these schools, in addition to losing its Title I funding. For example, the state grants up to $30,000 in loan-repayment assistance to teachers who choose to work in Title I schools. A school that loses its Title I status could lose access to teachers motivated under this loan-repayment program to serve Maryland’s neediest children.

More for consultants

Worse, the Board of Education spent more taxpayer money on expensive, out-of-state corporate consultants to design Martirano’s plan than the board allocates to most of the county’s neediest elementary schools through the Title I program. The board paid $400,000 to these consultants. Yet the board only allocates about $325,000 to the average school under Title I. The board gave less money to 80% of impoverished schools under the Title I program than it gave to Martirano’s out-of-state consultants. Only two schools received more than $400,000 in Title I funding.

Some of the officials on the seven-member Board would even outsource their elected office to these high-paid consultants.

Board member Sabina Taj said, “The hired consultants are able to explain the moves they make and help the Board understand the repercussions of additional changes. … None of us are equipped with the skills that these gentlemen are equipped with and that we hired them to do. This is why we paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire experts to get us to a good plan rather than rely on our own.”

Board chair Mavis Ellis joined Taj in a failed motion that would have compelled the board to treat Martirano’s consultant-made plan as the official baseline for redistricting.

Howard County voters did not hire out-of-state consultants to do redistricting. They hired the board members themselves. It was a mistake, of course, but at least it is one that voters can correct at the next election.

Lew Jan Olowski (lew.jan.olowski@gmail.com) is an attorney and a Howard County resident unaffiliated with any organization.