By: Pacific Legal Foundation

Parents deserve transparency in their children’s public education, whether about what their kids are learning, how their tax dollars are being spent, or, in the case of highly competitive magnet schools, how school districts decide who gets in and who doesn’t.

Transparency is severely lacking right now in Montgomery County, Maryland, as the public schools keep parents in the dark after implementing changes to their magnet middle schools admissions process.

Several years ago, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) leaders became concerned that Asian-American students were overrepresented in the district’s magnet middle schools, and black and Hispanic students were underrepresented, when compared to the demographics of the district as a whole. 

To make things more “equitable,” which in this case is code for “racially balanced,” MCPS tried to find a way to reduce the number of Asian-American students admitted to the magnet middle schools to allow more room for black and Hispanic students. It’s been illegal since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 to assign children to schools based on their race, except in the very narrowest of circumstances. MCPS doesn’t meet those narrow circumstances, so they had to get creative in order to racially balance the magnet middle schools.  

And get creative they did.  

Starting in 2017, MCPS began implementing several ostensibly race-neutral changes that in reality were anything but. Two of these changes—disqualifying students who  had “academic peer groups” at their local middle schools and norming admissions test scores by elementary school socioeconomic status—led to a dramatic drop in admission offers for Asian-American students. 

MCPS refuses to tell parents what constitutes an academic peer group, but the best guess is it means a group of at least 19 other students who are above-average academically and will attend the same neighborhood middle school. Because many Asian-American students in Montgomery County are clustered geographically, this new change disqualifies large chunks of students who might otherwise be admitted to a magnet middle school. Instead, even the most exceptionally gifted Asian-American student could be excluded from a magnet middle school simply because she lives in an area with many other high achieving students.  

The other change that’s targeting Asian-American students is MCPS’ decision to sort elementary schools into socioeconomic bands of low, medium, and high poverty, and then only comparing an applicant’s standardized test scores against others within that same socioeconomic band. Again, because Asian-American students are largely clustered in the same handful of elementary schools, this supposedly race-neutral change has an outsized impact on Asian-American students. Instead of competing against every MCPS student for admission to a magnet middle school, Asian-American applicants are now mainly competing against each other. Rigging the system in this way all but guarantees that fewer Asian-American will be offered admission to a magnet middle school.

And unsurprisingly, that’s exactly what happened. Admission offers to Asian-American students dropped nearly 25% the first year after MCPS enacted these changes and have been cut nearly in half since then. While a handful more black and Latino students were offered spots at the magnet schools, it was actually white students who saw the greatest increases in admissions offers.  

MCPS refuses to fully explain its changes or offer any explanations to Asian-American students who scored in the top 5% on the admissions tests and were still denied a seat at a magnet school. This lack of transparency makes one thing crystal clear: if you are Asian-American, hard work and merit no longer matter within MCPS. 

MCPS’ blatant racial balancing of its magnet middle schools is not only unfair, it’s also unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has said time and time again that public primary and secondary schools can’t use a wish for greater diversity as a reason to assign kids to schools based on the color of their skin. The appropriate remedy for the ills of past discrimination can’t be more discrimination.

Or put much more succinctly by Chief Justice John Roberts: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  

A group of Montgomery County parents is asking MCPS to do just that—stop discriminating against their children because they are Asian-American. The Association for Education Fairness (AFEF) is a group of parents committed to ensuring that all children in Montgomery County can compete for admission to the magnet middle schools without regard to their race. This month, AFEF joined with Pacific Legal Foundation to fight for their children’s constitutional rights in federal court. AFEF’s members want their children, many of whom are first-generation Americans, to see that hard work and merit matter more than the color of their skin.  

Though it certainly has not always been true in practice, it’s been nearly a century since this nation’s highest court declared that skin color cannot determine where a child goes to school. Discrimination can never be fixed with more discrimination. In the push for greater equality of opportunity and racial justice, we can’t lose sight of this essential fact.