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Areas to Address in a Potential Redistricting Reform

Rick Kohn

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As we approach the vote by the Board of Education on the final school redistricting plan, here are some reflections on areas to address during a potential redistricting reform.

The Howard County Public Schools System (HCPSS) has been engaged in development of new school district boundaries to balance capacity at schools. Indeed, the process that has been undertaken has been flawed in many respects.

The Howard County Board of Education has a prescription for making redistricting decisions called Policy 6010, but aspects of this policy were not implemented. Policy 6010 establishes that the redistricting plans must consider all of the following three factors: facility utilization, community stability, and demographic balance of the student population.

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Let’s begin with the initial statement that the school system aims to “balance capacity” in county schools. 

This refers to the number of students attending each school relative to the space available for them. The problem being addressed is that some schools have far too many students while others, sometimes even neighboring schools, have room for more students.

Balancing capacity to optimally utilize school facilities is one of the factors that should be considered when adjusting school districts, but it is only one of the factors.  Also important to resource utilization is the minimization of bus service and distance traveled on buses, and allowing students who can walk to school the opportunity to attend the nearest school. Thus, optimizing facility utilization is more than just balancing capacity in each school

Furthermore, Policy 6010 states that redistricting plans must also consider more than just facility utilization when developing redistricting plans. This brings up the issue of community stability. 

For example, Policy 6010 states that at least 15% of students should be moved together from one school to another. Preferably, contiguous communities or neighborhoods should be kept together, and no student should be redistricted more than once every five years.

Finally, Policy 6010 states that redistricting should “promote the creation of a diverse and inclusive student body at both the sending and receiving schools”. The policy states that schools are to be balanced in terms of the following: racial/ethnic composition of the student population, socioeconomic composition of the school population as measured by participation in the federal Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs) program, academic performance of students as measured by current standardized testing results, and the level of English learners as measured by enrollment in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Program.

The proposed plans to “balance capacity” did not do well in any other regard. They did not minimize bus routes or movement of students close enough to walk. They did not improve continuity of neighborhoods. But most clearly they did not improve economic or racial integration of schools, and may have even made these issues worse. In many cases, the proposed plans moved walkers and increased bus rides, which maintained or increased segregation of schools by race and income. We will show alternative plans that could have accomplished all of these goals, and balanced school capacity, in quantitatively better ways than the proposed plans.

The process to develop and evaluate redistricting plans was severely flawed, and this flawed process has negatively impacted some members of our community, especially members who live in District 3. 

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First, the data that were provided for development and evaluation of plans were flawed. 

Racial demographic data by polygon were apparently not available. A Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) Request #2018-044 was made for data used to develop racial profile of prospective districts. 

The HCPSS denied the request by saying that no racial demographic data were available by polygon, which shows the school system could not readily determine racial demographics for proposed districts, and racial demographics could not be considered when drawing district lines. 

The percentage of students on FARMs were equally biased, and the school system corrected this dataset only after most of the redistricting plans were completed. 

The school system said it used PARCC testing data to ensure balance in testing results in proposed schools. However, these data also were found to be flawed severely. For example, another MPIA request (#2018-047) pointed out that test results were provided for only a fraction of the students tested, and the fraction was much smaller for low-income schools. 

When these data were summarized, Oakland Mills High School and Hammond High School scored highest, and were significantly better than the lowest performing school, Centennial High School. However, these are very different results than reported in previously published summaries.

After all of the various iterations of plans were finished, the HCPSS stated that as much as 45% of the projected student enrollment predictions were wrong. 

Obviously, the data were not sufficient to develop redistricting plans, and certainly not to develop plans that considered racial or economic balance in accordance with Policy 6010.

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Secondly, the process was flawed. The Attendance Area Committee (AAC) did not have diverse membership and could not reflect on issues of importance to the entire community. In particular, the committee lacked membership from low-income schools, lacked racial balance, and lacked income balance, among others. No member of the committee to our knowledge was from District 3.

Let's be clear, the committee members did their best with poor instruction and flawed data. The poor representation is not a reflection of any individual members of the committee. However, the committee in general lacked representation from large areas of the county, and therefore could not readily reflect upon the issues uniquely important to those areas. 

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Third, the process to obtain input from members of the community was flawed and caused the input to be substantially biased. 

The HCPSS website directed the community to provide very short responses to specific questions.  The questions were leading and limited to how individual families were affected by the plans. They did not address the long-term interests of the community.

This process and leading questions would have provided biased responses emphasizing personal interests, and quite often comments biased against certain schools. For example, the process favored input opposing moving of neighborhoods to so-called “bad” schools, or in effect, encouraged comments favoring segregation of communities.

Fourth, the initial plan outlined in the Feasibility Study increased segregation by income and race, in some cases, and underestimated the degree of segregation that was being proposed through the use of biased FARM data.  Subsequent plans only tweaked this initial plan, and with inadequate tools to do so properly.

All of these inadequacies resulted in recommended plans that were characterized as maintaining or increasing the already high level of segregation in the county by income and race. More low-income students and people of color were concentrated in the lowest income schools. In fact, length of time students ride buses was increased in order to maintain or increase the degree of segregation.