The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Grade-school Rawlsianism

May 19, 2005

Our area is served by two local elementary schools, New Hampshire Estates (K-2) and Oak View (3-5). The schools used to both be K-5, but about twenty years ago they were “paired.” In other words, Montgomery County instituted a busing system to try to improve demographic and racial diversity at both schools.

A lot of people in our neighborhood want to unpair the schools, including Ruy Texeria of Emerging Democratic Majority fame. This would allow our kids to attend Oak View for the entirety of K-5 education.

We live in what is, by Montgomery County standards, a fairly poor and heavily minority – black and hispanic – school district.1 New Hampshire Estates’ district is even poorer and less white. Still, both my wife and I assumed, going into the meeting, that all the talk of having a “neighborhood school” that kids could walk to was really a euphemism for classism and racism. New Hampshire Estates is a very good school, with great teachers and leadership, even though its test scores are dragged down by the socioeconomic position of many of its students.

I came away with a very different impression.

Currently, both schools are not at all diverse, with around 9% non-minority enrollment. Both also have between 70-80% “poor” students, i.e., students who receive meal subsidies. These are simply abysmal figures from a diversity perspective. They are, as Ruy pointed out, not even remotely close to what educators talk about when they praise economically and socially diverse schools for improving the performance of poor and minority students.

So why were the schools paired in the first place? There used to be a French-immersion program at Oak View. The program, which drew students from throughout the county, was overwhelming white and middle class. The fact that students in the program took separate classes didn’t seem to bother the school board.1 Some time ago, however, the program left Oak View. At that point, the demographics of the school shifted towards their current equilibrium.

Next, the local community superintendent, Steven L. Bedford, spoke. He said he was there to listen, but that he wanted to clarify some things. For one, he was not at all inclined to recommend that the schools be unpaired. It would take a lot of work, he said, for the parents here to change his, or the Superintendent’s, mind.

He next spoke of all the improvements in the school’s test scores over the last four years. He argued that to unpair the schools would lead to greater economic isolation for New Hampshire Estates (although the figures he mumbled were not all that different from the current figures). He talked in very general terms about how well things are going in the schools, at the county level, and so forth.

Either Bedford was being disingenuous, or he doesn’t grasp elementary causal reasoning. The demographics of the schools have been constant for between ten and fifteen years, so it makes no sense to attribute any recent gains to the demographic effects of pairing the two schools (if anything, the demographics were more diverse in the early 1990s). Bedford failed to advance a single argument, or provide any data, that addressed the key issue: whether the marginal impact on economic and demographic diversity of unpairing the schools would negatively impact the educational performance of New Hampshire Estates. To be clear, we’re talking very small numbers here, perhaps a loss of between 10-15 “white” students from a population of around 240, and the addition of another 15-20 students on subsidized meals.

Being an academic in the social sciences, I got fairly angry about all this. So I interrupted Bedford while he was reciting his general list of accomplishments and asked him if he had any evidence or data from which we might infer that any of the improvements at the schools were related to the pairing rather then, say, better teaching and leadership? He mentioned something about nationwide studies, although I couldn’t figure out what he was arguing (and neither, it seemed, could anyone else).

The meeting continued, and things got pretty heated. Afterwards, I approached Bedford. I told him that I was initially opposed to unpairing the schools, but that I was somewhat underwhelmed by the evidence he’d presented. He responded that there was good evidence that unpairing the schools would do more harm than good. So I asked him what was the basis of his claim, given the data Ruy presented.

His response: Ruy’s figures didn’t take into account the fact that wealthier parents might put their kids back into Oak View if the schools were unpaired. That, he said, would bring the percentage of students on subsidized meals at Oak View closer to 60%, or even into the high 50% range.

So, in essence, the problem is not that New Hampshire Estates would be significantly harmed, but that Oak View would become truly economically mixed! The “increased economic isolation” he claimed New Hampshire Estates would experience was code for the fact that it would become much less diverse relative to Oak View, not that it would be much worse off in any absolute sense.

Bedford said at the end of the meeting that he “heard nothing” to lead him to change his mind about the pairing. I wonder why. Perhaps Montgomery Country Public Schools would rather have two non-diverse schools in close proximity than one genuinely mixed school and one non-diverse school?

We still plan to send our daughter to New Hampshire Estates (unless she attends a special program based somewhere else). But it would be nice if she could walk across the street to her classes, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a very good argument for why she shouldn’t be able to.

1The area is becoming significantly wealthier, due to rising property values and the booming redevelopment of Silver Spring.
2The idea that having different demographic groups simply “on campus together” is sufficient for realizing gains from economic and ethnic diversity makes little sense. When I was in the public school system, I was in a “gifted and talented” program. The students in the program never interacted with the other students on campus. We didn’t have classes together, which, when combined with the fact that one group of students was in an elite program, was more than enough to produce its own kind of tribalism.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.