The Districtwide Boundary Analysis: an explainer

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

by William Vorosmarti

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the country. There are over 150,000 students and 10,000 teachers spread across 206 schools. The student population is 32% Hispanic, 28% white, 21% Black, 14% Asian, and 5% other or multiracial.

However, there is more to these numbers than what meets the eye. Some MCPS high schools (Damascus, Whitman and Bethesda-Chevy Chase) are over 50% white, while other schools (John F. Kennedy, Paint Branch and Northwood) are over 50% Black or over 50% Hispanic.

Poolesville High School is less than 10% Black, while Paint Branch and JFK are less than 10% white.

These disparities have led many to suggest that MCPS is de facto segregated (meaning segregation not formally enshrined in law), with wealthier white and Asian students concentrated in some schools and lower-income Black and Hispanic students concentrated in others.

Additionally, MCPS faces issues of overcrowding. Today, MCPS has more students than at any other time in its history, with over 10,000 more students than 10 years ago.

In January 2019, the former Student Member of the Board (SMOB) Ananya Tadikonda introduced a resolution calling for a county-wide boundary analysis to address these racial disparities and overcrowding concerns.

The solution proposed was to hire a private consulting firm to conduct a “boundary assessment study.” The firm would then make general recommendations to the school board by June 2020 as to what course MCPS should take.The School Board officially passed this resolution on January 8, 2019.

While MCPS maintains that the study is simply a measure to ensure more equitable schools, some county residents have voiced their opposition. Their main concern is that students will have to change schools, even though the consultants are not making any specific boundary change proposals, and the School Board is not obligated to adopt any of the proposals they suggest.

One reason why parents are concerned about their children changing schools was echoed by local conservative activist Robin Ficker, who wrote in a comment section, “We don’t want unnecessary busing of students.” Longer bus rides are a concern for some parents, not only because they are reminiscent of controversial desegregation measures from the 70s and 80s, but also because they subtract from learning time and separate students from their peers at local schools.

Another issue that parents have raised is that of property values. The argument goes that families buy their houses where they do based on the quality of nearby schools. To these parents, changing school boundaries unfairly punishes these people for their prosperity by sending their children to a ‘lesser’ school. As the quality of education goes down, the value of homes in more expensive neighborhoods will go down, negatively impacting the economy.

On the other hand, many people, especially students, have voiced their support for the boundary study. The primary arguments in favor of it are that de facto segregation and overcrowding are serious issues that have been ignored for too long. According to this line of reasoning, it is beneficial for students to be exposed to many different races and cultures at school.

Proponents of the study often point out that racism is still alive and well in Montgomery County, and that concern over busing and property values is actually a mask for bigotry.

This difference of opinion led to several contentious town halls throughout 2019 and into 2020. According to polling, a majority of people at these meetings were skeptical of the boundary study, with a vocal minority showing up in favor.

In June, the firm hired by the county is expected to deliver their report to the School Board. The report will also be released to the public at the same time. After that, it will be up to the Board to determine what the next step will be. If they choose to change school boundaries, it would have to be preceded by an entirely new study.

Thus while changes could feasibly happen, it would not be as a direct result of the current boundary study.