ELLICOTT CITY, Md. -- 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 a backlash. The debates have been charged with emotion and racist rhetoric reminiscent of the aftermath of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. 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 local 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 local 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 an area mall and flooded public meetings.
They carried signs that read “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 living in Ellicott City, wrote in a newspaper op-ed that his children, now in their 30s, received good educations in the 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.
Some parents are now challenging the plan in court. Others would have preferred to see more ambitious changes.
Popp said the scaled-back redistricting sends a message that “people who can afford the matching T-shirts and the fancy signs” and have time to organize can get their way.
Cynthia Fikes, whose son attends Wilde Lake High, said the redistricting debate revealed the “level of fear and disdain" that much of the community had for people unlike themselves. She said racist and classist statements were “allowed to pass as conversations” at meetings and on social media.
“When you look at what was said, it's so hurtful,” said Fikes, who is black.
In Virginia’s capital city, the school board approved a plan that reassigned some students but rejected more sweeping proposals that would have diversified Richmond’s whitest elementary schools.
The former capital of the Confederacy is about 47 percent white, but only about 14 percent of its public school students are. And of those white students, many are concentrated in just a handful of schools.
The push to integrate some of those most segregated schools was included in last year’s rezoning process, which also aimed to ease overcrowding and fill new school buildings. The most controversial proposals involved pairing, a process in which students from the whitest elementary schools would have been pooled together with students from majority-black schools and then split up by grade level.
In an emotional public debate that stretched for months, supporters called pairing a bold way to help disadvantaged students and create more unified and diverse communities.
But those supporters were often outnumbered by opponents, with parents and property owners raising concerns about home values. Some said it would strain families with children split between multiple schools, limiting what time parents could spend volunteering with a PTA or complicating pickups and drop-offs. Others threatened that it would trigger another exodus to the suburbs or to private schools.
At one forum, Taikein Cooper said the coded racist language was “so loud I had to pinch myself.”
“We can all agree that the schools are not equal right now," said Cooper, the executive director of an education advocacy organization. “They’re not the same. That’s why some people behind me are fighting so adamantly to protect their own privilege.”
Superintendent Jason Kamras, who was hired in 2017 and pledged to reform the district with the state’s lowest graduation rate, supported pairing. In a tweet, he likened the criticism of one option to “Massive Resistance 2.0,” a reference to the anti-segregation movement that followed the Supreme Court's landmark Brown decision.
“I heard a lot of things said during these meetings which sounded almost verbatim like the things that were said in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s to prevent the integration of schools in Richmond and around the country,” he said in an interview.
But pairing was also unpopular among many black families. School board member Kenya Gibson addressed the crowd at a community forum where a diverse group of parents overwhelmingly opposed the plan, saying she recognized that “many of the people of color in this room have a lot of the same unease as the white people have in this room.”
In December, the board enacted a plan that did not include pairing, although it redrew lines in parts of the city in ways that will make some schools more diverse.
Theresa Kennedy, a white mother of two elementary school students who served on the advisory committee that created the rezoning options, was a vocal advocate of pairing. She was disappointed.
“These votes don’t come along often," Kennedy said. “And every vote like this has the opportunity to shift a generation.”
Rankin reported from Richmond. Associated Press Writer Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, also contributed to this report.