Race and Choice in Montgomery County, Maryland, Magnet Schools
by Jeffrey R. Henig - 1995
Research on requests to transfer to magnet schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, suggests that racial factors play a strong role in school choice. The paper argues that unfettered choice still has the potential to exacerbate racial separation, even in relatively liberal and progressive settings like Montgomery County. (Source: ERIC)
Analysis of the pattern of requests to transfer into elementary school magnet programs in Montgomery County, Maryland, suggests that the direction in which choice points may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, racial segregation. White families were most likely to request transfer into schools with low proportions of minorities (which also were those located in higher-income neighborhoods), and minority families were more likely to opt for schools in low-income neighborhoods (which also tended to be schools with higher proportions of minority students). Significantly, this racial pattern held even when other characteristics of the schools were taken into account. Evidence from parental surveys suggests that, lacking other sharply defined clues about which schools are likely to benefit their children most, both minority and nonminority parents fall back on other criteria, including convenience, informal word-of-mouth, and concerns about their childs social integration. These criteria, while not racially determined, are racially influenced. The Montgomery County, Maryland, experience suggests that unfettered choice has the potential to exacerbate racial separation, even in a relatively liberal and prosperous setting. Choice can be structured so that it promotes racial integration and socioeconomic equality, but doing so requires that public officials take strong stands, and often politically unpopular ones.
One of the stranger occurrences in the discourse about educational policy has been the subtle but serious redefinition of what magnet schools represent. Originally linked in unambiguous terms to the goal of racial desegregation, magnet schools more recently have been rhetorically linked to the goal of educational excellence. Originally representing the forceful application of government resources and authority to achieve collectively defined goals, magnet schools more lately have been characterized as a testing ground for the principle that market forcesnot government policyare the key to improving our nations schools.
In my recent book, Rethinking School Choice: Limits of the Market Metaphor, I chronicle the political motivations behind this redefinition in greater depth.1 Early in 1988, President Ronald Reagan went to Suitland High School, a public school in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and announced to 2,200 students and guests that its magnet program was one of the great successes of the education reform movement. In doing so, he was using his considerable powers of rhetoric and symbolism to initiate an interpretive revision of history and a political reclamation of a foundering idea. In spite of his substantial legislative successes in other areas, Reagan had been stymied in his efforts to mobilize support for his vision of school vouchers that could be used in private and parochial schools. Linking the choice agenda to existing public magnet schools helped the administration make the case that school choice was feasible, demonstrably successful, and unlikely to lead to the racial and socioeconomic disparity that his critics seemed to fear.
In this article, I draw on my research on requests to transfer to magnet schools to underscore the danger of misapplying the magnet school experience to bolster calls for more market-oriented school choice plans. The Montgomery County, Maryland, experience suggests, I will argue, that unfettered choice still has the potential to exacerbate racial separation, even in a relatively liberal and prosperous setting. Choice can be structured so that it promotes racial integration and socioeconomic equality, but doing so requires that public officials take strong stands, and often politically unpopular ones.2
THE MAGNET SCHOOL OPTION IN MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MARYLAND
The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is a large district comprising 495 square miles and approximately 103,000 students. The county, which rests on the northern border of the District of Columbia, has a population that is of relatively high socioeconomic status. Although its population is still predominantly white, the minority population in the school system has increased dramatically, both in total numbers and, even more sharply, as a percentage of total enrollment. Between 1970 and 1990, while overall enrollments were decreasing, the number of minority children in MCPS elementary and secondary schools increased just under 290 percent, from 10,034 to 39,543. In 1990, minorities constituted over 38 percent in all enrollments.
In the area of the county that adjoins the District of Columbia, sixteen out of seventeen elementary schools, two intermediate schools, and a high school now boast some kind of magnet program. Within this geographic area, at least, magnet schools are not a specially crafted exception; they are part of a comprehensive magnet network.3 Children are assigned to a home school based on their local attendance zone; their parents, however, are encouraged to explore the option of transferring their child to another magnet school. Transportation is provided at no charge to students whose transfers have been approved. The countys stated policy holds that transfer requests are to be approved unless they result in racial imbalance, overcrowding, or substantial underutilization in the sending or receiving school. For the 1984 and 1985 school years, 85 percent of all transfer requests were approved either initially or on appeal.4
The nineteen schools with magnet programs alone serve a student population of about 10,200a clientele that is larger than 95 percent of the nations school districts.5 Moreover, these magnet schools show much higher levels of racial diversity and special needs than does the county as a whole. Thirteen of the schools have more minority than nonminority students, and in nine of these the composition is over 60 percent minority. In seven of the schools, more than one of every three students is poor enough to be eligible for the school lunch program, and in six schools more than one in ten students is in a program for nonEnglish speaking children.
RACE AS A FACTOR IN SCHOOL CHOICE
In an analysis, the details of which are provided elsewhere, I related various magnet elementary school characteristics to the racial pattern of requests to transfer into those schools in 1985.6 There were slightly more than 450 requests by families to transfer into one of the fourteen elementary magnet programs in operation that year. Minority families, which accounted for 57.7 percent of the students in those schools, made 46.5 percent of the transfer requests.
Advocates for more market-based choice systems have argued that there is no necessary tension between individual choice and integration, and they have pointed to the apparent success of some magnet schools in bringing about voluntary integration to buttress their claim.7 But the pattern of requests in Montgomery County suggests thatunless aggressively regulated by authoritiesthe direction in which choice points may exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, racial segregation. Both whites and minorities seem to direct their choices toward schools in which their children will be less likely to be racially or socioeconomically isolated. This criterion, however, points them in different directions. Where white families were most likely to request transfer into schools with low proportions of minorities (which also were those located in higher-income neighborhoods), minority families were more likely to opt for schools in low-income neighborhoods (which also tended to be schools with higher proportions of minority students). Significantly, this racial pattern held even when other characteristics of the schools were taken into account.8
A survey of over one thousand magnet and nonmagnet school parents, conducted by the county in the spring of 1985, provides some insight into the reason why such a racial pattern exists. The problem is not that Montgomery County residents are strongly or reflexively averse to sending their children to schools with children of different races. To the contrary, in an area in which almost all children attend racially mixed schools, 76.3 percent of white parents and 77.3 percent of black parents indicated they felt the racial composition of their school was about right.9
Rather than being a result of old-fashioned racism, what seems to be happening is this: Lacking other sharply defined clues about which schools are likely to benefit their children most, both minority and nonminority parents fall back on other criteria, including convenience, informal word-of-mouth, and concerns about their childs social integration. These criteria, while not racially determined, are racially influenced. The concern about social integration, for instance, leads both white and black parents to be unhappy when their children are in the distinct minority. White parents whose children are in schools with over 60 percent minority composition are three times more likely to express dissatisfaction with the racial mix than those in schools with less than 45 percent minority enrollment. Black parents whose children attend schools that have fewer than 25 percent minority enrollment are more than six times as likely to be dissatisfied with the racial mix than those whose children attend schools that are more than 60 percent minority.
MAKING CHOICE WORK
Given a pattern of requests that might have increased racial segregation, Montgomery County officials have relied primarily on the exercise of government authority to keep choice and integration goals in balance. This is most directly seen in the exercise of the authority to deny transfer requests. By constraining the choice of some parentsby rejecting about 15 percent of the requests for transfer on grounds that they would worsen racial imbalanceofficials have been able to keep the magnet program from exacerbating segregation. In addition, county officials have had to face down pressure to dramatically expand the number of magnets, as parents in other areas of the county have demanded to know why their schools should be denied the attention and resources that the magnets seem to garner. The drawing power of magnets, and their utility as tools for managing integration, is likely to be diluted if magnet features are allowed to replicate, willy-nilly, throughout the system.
But the exercise of such authoritative action is politically demanding. School officials are placed in an awkward position when they are forced to deny transfers at the same time they are publicly promoting the availability of choice. The tendency of black parents to shy away from schools in which their children might be racially isolated adds another complication. Because minority transfer requests were more likely to run counter to than support racial-balance objectives, school officials found themselves forced to deny a higher proportion of requests from minorities than from majorities. From 1983 through 1986, officials rejected 20.2 percent of minority requests to transfer into the fourteen magnet schools, while rejecting 13.1 percent of majority requests.10 And limiting magnet programs to situations in which they will decrease racial integrationwhich was unproblematic and relatively uncontroversial when undertaken as an alternative to forced busing or when funded by federal programs that made this a requirementis less easily defended by local officials in the contemporary legal and political climate, which makes judicial intervention less likely.
That racial factors appeared to play a strong role, even in the liberal and progressive setting of Montgomery County, should prompt some concern among those who envision a choice dynamic driven solely by parental insistence on educational quality. Such patterns cast doubt on the applicability of the racial neutrality perspective, which holds that freely exercised individual choice will, more or less spontaneously, complement the socially defined goal of greater racial intermixing.
This is not to say that the expansion of choice cannot coexist with the continued commitment to important social goals, such as racial integration; rather, it is to acknowledge that bringing about and sustaining such a complementary arrangement is likely to require careful attention to institutional particulars. Moreover, attending to such institutional particulars is not simply a matter of providing model designs to well-intentioned public officials. The difficulties that Montgomery County has encountered suggest that managing choice to promote integration is a problematic exercise, even when undertaken as self-conscious effort by well-informed public officials in a relatively favorable cultural and fiscal milieu. The current fashion of linking school choice to celebrations of the power of markets to succeed where democracy and government are destined to fail, however, misses the boat.11 Indeed, by systematically delegitimizing the role of collective decision making and authoritative governance, they run the risk of undermining the very institutions on which our hope for the future ultimately must rest.