In Pursuit of Equity: The Politics of Desegregation in Howard County, Maryland

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School desegregation policies aim to redistribute educational resources and opportunities more equitably, but they have not always done so. Evidence indicates that political factors, including resistance from White parents and legal constraints, have undermined desegregation policies’ potential to fulfill their aims. Yet, a few studies suggest that windows of opportunity to desegregate schools exist. Even so, these studies often focus on how a subset of political factors shape desegregation efforts, and some political factors remain understudied. Furthermore, school desegregation research tends to focus on either the political dynamics of advancing these policies or the effects these policies have on segregation. Thus, the extent to which political factors affect desegregation policies’ potential to reduce segregation and, eventually, to advance educational equity remains an open question.

My dissertation addresses these gaps in the literature by using a race-conscious political framework and a qualitative-dominant, convergent parallel mixed methods design to explore the politics and outcomes of the Howard County Public School System’s (HCPSS) recent effort to desegregate by redistricting, or redrawing school attendance boundary lines. Howard County is an ideal setting to study desegregation because it possesses several favorable conditions for desegregating schools, including racial/ethnic diversity, espoused commitments to educational equity, and a history of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic integration. These favorable conditions allow me to “test” whether desegregation is a feasible policy goal for school districts and to provide policymakers with insights about how to advance desegregation policies in ways that maximize their potential to reduce segregation and promote educational equity.

I find that school overcrowding, growing racial/ethnic and socioeconomic segregation, and resource inequities led the HCPSS Superintendent and the Howard County Board of Education to initiate redistricting. The superintendent proposed a redistricting plan that had the potential to reduce segregation in HCPSS. Yet, various political factors—including resistance from wealthy White and Asian parents and limitations from HCPSS’s formal attendance boundary adjustment policy—led the board to enact a redistricting plan that had relatively less potential to reduce segregation and would have increased it at some school levels. Upon implementation, the enacted redistricting plan appeared to reduce segregation in HCPSS, but those reductions likely resulted from enrollment changes in the district. Ultimately, findings suggest that, under favorable political conditions, desegregation policies do have the potential to reduce segregation. However, realizing these policies’ potential will require districts to either a) explicitly prioritize desegregation, rather than allowing policymakers to attempt to balance desegregation with other, often competing policy goals, or b) align desegregation with other policy goals, rather than pitting it against them.