ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (AP) — As they try to address stubborn school segregation, many of the nation's school districts confront a familiar obstacle: resistance from affluent, well-organized and mostly white parents to changes affecting their children's classrooms.
From New York City to Richmond, Virginia, sweeping proposals to ease inequities have been scaled back or canceled after encountering backlash. The debates have been charged with emotion and racist rhetoric reminiscent of the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that threw out state laws establishing segregated schools.
While the federal government has largely stepped back from the aggressive role it played decades ago in school desegregation, some school districts have acted in recognition of increasingly apparent racial divides and the long-established educational benefits of integration.
In Howard County, Maryland, a suburban community between Washington and Baltimore, one parent who supports reforms lamented the presence of "concentrated poverty in certain schools and concentrated wealth in other schools."
"When we have concentrated poverty, those students are not getting that same quality of education," said Dawn Popp, a white mother of two students in public schools.
The Supreme Court has ruled that race cannot be used as the driving factor in assigning students to public schools. But more than 100 school districts have implemented voluntary desegregation plans that work around that ruling by mixing students from families with different incomes or educational levels, factors often associated with race, according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington.
The success of such efforts can depend on the size of the coalition seeking change and how well the goals are communicated. The most important task for school officials is "to explain to the public why integrated schools are good for everyone," Kahlenberg said.
Race and class divisions were on display for months last year after the Howard County school board directed the superintendent to start a comprehensive redistricting process. The Howard County Council in August requested that the blueprint address socioeconomic and racial segregation across the school system, which serves about 59,000 children, the majority of whom are minorities. Most low-income students are black and Hispanic.
The superintendent originally proposed moving some 7,400 students to different schools. The overwhelming opposition was led by white and Asian families, who protested near a mall and flooded public meetings.
They carried signs, "Kids before politics," "Swapping kids creates new inequities," and "No forced busing." Speakers at public meetings said the changes would cause stress and anxiety for their children. One suggested the transfers could lead students to consider suicide.
Opponents insisted the issue was not about race and sought to distance themselves from racist feedback submitted in writing.
George Henry, a retiree in Ellicott City, wrote in a newspaper op-ed that his children, now in their 30s, received good educations in local schools, with highly diverse classmates. He said the "artificial and forced mixing" is unnecessary. He told The Associated Press the "fundamental factor" to closing the achievement gap is the support students have at home, which is not up to the county.
In November, the Howard County Board of Education approved reassigning some 5,400 students, not including two particular high schools — River Hill High and Wilde Lake High, where less than 5% and more than 45% of students, respectively, are from low-income families. Parents of students at River Hill High had been among the most outspoken protesters.