Montgomery's experiment with school choice really isn't

Each fall, thousands of 8th graders in Montgomery County participate in Maryland's oldest experiment in school choice, the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. Intended to prevent the school system's growing segregation, the consortia's 8 schools are not only more isolated than before, but academic performance has suffered.

SAT scores at the 3 Northeast Consortium high schools, Sherwood, and MCPS.

Since the 1970's, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has struggled to close the "achievement gap" between white and minority students and create more integrated schools. While officials had some success with magnet schools, in the 1990's, they sought a new approach with James Hubert Blake High School, which was being built near Olney.

Instead of redrawing the catchment boundaries, a long and controversial process, the Board of Education decided to let students integrate themselves by letting them choose between the new school and 3 nearby schools, Sherwood, Paint Branch and Springbrook. In 1998, the US Department of Education gave MCPS a $2.9 million grant to set up the Northeast Consortium.

From "controlled choice" to "preferred choice"

Each school in the consortium had a unique "signature program": Blake had fine arts and humanities, Paint Branch had science and media, and Springbrook had information technology. The schools would compete for students, making each program stronger and more distinct and hopefully discouraging them from leaving for private school. If the schools failed to integrate, a "controlled choice" program would take over, assigning students based on race and ethnicity.

A middle school bulletin board showing Northeast Consortium high school choices.

But Sherwood never made it into the consortium, due to parent complaints about the uncertainty of a new school and long bus rides. There were unspoken concerns about mixing students from Sherwood, which was predominantly white and affluent, with Springbrook and Paint Branch, which were poorer and majority-minority.

"Sherwood parents [were] afraid of their kids going to Springbrook," said Pat Ryan, a civic activist who helped plan the consortium, during a 2008 interview. "I talked to a lot of parents who said they moved to Olney because it's a predominantly white area and they wanted their kids to go to school with white kids."

While some neighborhoods in Olney were still redistricted into the consortium, MCPS created "base areas" for each school as a concession, guaranteeing that those residents could attend Blake. Officials called this "preferred choice."

The problem repeated itself with the Downcounty Consortium, which MCPS started in 2004 with Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Wheaton, and Northwood high schools. While the Board of Education originally considered including adjacent Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, parent outcry led them to drop it.

Schools unsuccessfully compete for middle-class students

Some Sherwood students resisted being redistricted, but school officials quickly noticed that Blake, the emerging top choice, was siphoning white and affluent students from Springbrook and Paint Branch.

The percentage of white students at the 3 consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS over time.

To encourage a similar demographic mix at each school, in 2006 the Board of Education gave extra weight to the choices of students on free and reduced lunch (FARMS). A federal appeals court had declared the system's prior use of race in school assignments unconstitutional.

Immediately, the number of students who received their first choice fell. In 2002, every single kid in the consortium got their first choice, but only 85% did in 2006. Not surprisingly, parents and students were livid.

The percentage of students now or ever on free or reduced lunch at the 3 consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS over time.

But instead of becoming more integrated, the Northeast Consortium schools lost white and higher-income students, even as Sherwood's racial and socioeconomic mix remained steady. SAT scores plummeted in the consortium, but stayed the same at Sherwood.

To compete for a dwindling pool of middle-class students, each school began copying the others' signature programs. Here's what they offer today:

  • Blake: The arts, humanities and public service, science, technology, engineering
    and mathematics, business and consumer services
  • Paint Branch: Science and media, finance, engineering technology, child development
    and education, NJROTC, and restaurant management
  • Springbrook: International Baccalaureate, International studies, technology

  • Blake High School's jazz band, shown in 2009, is part of their signature program.

    Today, 97% of Northeast Consortium students get their first choice. With a new building that opened last fall, Paint Branch is now tied with Blake for first choice. But given very similar choices, students seem to end up at their base school, whether by choice or default. In 2008, 73% of students at Paint Branch came from that school's base area, compared to 59% at Blake and 58% at Springbrook.

    Were the consortia worth it?

    In recent years, county officials have questioned the value of the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which have neither improved academic performance nor provided socioeconomic and racial balance. That may have been less of an issue if Sherwood and B-CC had been involved, or if the "base areas" hadn't been added.

    I was in one of the first classes to participate in the Northeast Consortium, and I chose Blake, where I graduated in 2005. I had a great experience, and certainly a different one that had I been sent to my neighborhood school, Paint Branch. But it appears that less than 10 years later, East County students have very different choices.

    In 2009, the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight asked if the consortia, which cost over $3 million to run each year, were a good use of public funds. When she ran for office, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, whose district includes both consortia, said she's open to making them neighborhood schools again.

    But school administrators say that regardless of the consortia schools' demographics, they can be fixed. Next, we'll talk to MCPS superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr about his thoughts on integration, school choice, and his plans to turn around Wheaton and Springbrook.

    Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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    Dan, nice write-up.

    If you want to tease out the cause of the declining SAT scores, suggest you compare the scores of the consortia schools with that of ALL MCPS that are (1) not white and (2) on FARM -- that way you can isolate the effect of class from whatever good or bad the schools are doing.

    by goldfish on Jun 27, 2013 1:16 pm • linkreport

    When the ratial makeup of the area served by all the schools in the consortia is changing to become less white, and lower income, of course diversity, as measured by white vs all others, and needing FARMS vs not needing FARMS is going to decrease, in favor of less whites and more FARMS across the board. Yes Sherwood seems to have resisted this change the most but even its data is slipping.

    What I think these data and experience from public testimony does show is people like to self segregate, and forcing integration just does not seem like the right answer to me. Like it or not, but the more you force integrate people, especially peoples kids, the more likely you are to have the mobile (wealthy) move away. Montgomery County has already lost standing in the region as being the economic powerhouse, and i'm afraid the more we try to socially engineer a solution to this, the more money will drain to Frederick, Howard and NOVA, leaving less and less to pay to do anything innovative with the school system.

    The bigger problem is minority families are disproportionately not earning high incomes, are not earning advanced degrees and are not investing enough time and energy at home into their children's success at school. In Baltimore where the overall population is much whiter, and the segregation between whites happens based on economic status, the schools in the poorer neighborhoods have more suspensions, lower test scores and lower overall education, yet often have the newest schools. We're not going to force integrate ourselves into improving education for the less wealthy. Spend the time and money on pre/post school programs, educational summer camps, tutors and such.

    by Gull on Jun 27, 2013 1:54 pm • linkreport

    The key issue is that if you are white & middle class you have to face your discomfort with your kid being a minority. Doesn't matter what your political affiliation, it is a demographic change that a lot of are not very comfortable facing. Plus most of us know that the system that has often excluded minority kids will also exclude our kids if we don't get our own some exclusive track so screw all other kids we need to take care of our own. Fundamentally what is good for our own kids in the short term will just exacerbate all the long term social problems we are seeing.

    by DC parent on Jun 27, 2013 4:31 pm • linkreport

    I mostly agree with Gull. Some people may want to self-segregate and go with what they are comfortable with, especially when it involves their children. Let them. Preferences based on race, income, gender, or sexual orientation should be completely eliminated. Just treat everyone the same. Let the chips fall where they may.

    by Nick on Jun 27, 2013 5:27 pm • linkreport

    More school systems -- like the once-integrated schools I attended in Wake County, N.C., and within D.C. -- are moving towards choice as the guiding principle of student assignment, and yet it has severe limitations in terms of guaranteeing equity and fostering diversity. It's disappointing to see that even in MoCo, a jurisdiction that certainly has the capacity and the will to deliver broad-based achievement, that school choice hasn't delivered on its promise.

    @Nick: The problem is that letting "the chips fall where they may" is unfair and ultimately counterproductive for society, given that the chips are inequitably distributed to begin with.

    @DC parent: agreed that "being a minority... is a demographic change that a lot of are not very comfortable facing" but it's one that whites across the region already face (and nationally in the generation ahead), and, well, those of us in the minority majority can't exactly sympathize.

    by Payton C. on Jul 2, 2013 1:36 pm • linkreport


    I agree that choice is an imperfect tool, but I believe that if done right it can work: if the schools provide strong, competitive options, and if choice happens in the context of a broader integration scheme. In other words, it can't just be 3 schools with generally similar demographics and some special classes. I talk about this more in today's post.

    by dan reed! on Jul 2, 2013 2:06 pm • linkreport

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