By now you’ve probably heard Bravo is making our very own Potomac the next location for its popular “Real Housewives” franchise. The Post provided details on the new cast members in “What to expect on ‘The Real Housewives of Potomac.’ ”
I’m sure we will see the new housewives lunching at our high-end, white-tablecloth restaurants, going to their favorite country clubs, getting pampered at our spas and shopping in Friendship Heights. However, beyond select affluent enclaves and pockets of privilege and exclusivity, the experience of living in Montgomery County is a far cry from “The Real Housewives.”
What you won’t see on the Bravo series is the black child who is about six times more likely to get suspended than his white peer or the child who has come to Montgomery County after fleeing violence in Central America. You won’t see the young man being recruited to join the MS-13 street gang or the teenager walking to the food bank because her mother is holding down three jobs trying to make ends meet for the family.
Of the more than 156,000 students in Montgomery County Public Schools,more than 35 percent receive free or reduced-price meals — that’s more than the entire student population of D.C. Public Schools.
As with most jurisdictions, Montgomery County’s inequality has been rooted in systemic indifference toward those with the least in society. One example is the decades-long development moratorium in the eastern portion of the county. Before I became a Montgomery County Council member, this planning and land-use tool was deployed to foster economic isolation in many African American neighborhoods.
While public investment poured into more affluent parts of the county, only recently have we begun to revitalize the predominantly African American White Oak area and Wheaton, the county’s Latino epicenter. The lack of attention to communities with high concentrations of people of color has created an opportunity gap for economic success.
Montgomery County’s issues are not unique. The difference is that we have the resources to improve the circumstances for residents who are economically disadvantaged. If the academic achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers can be solved anywhere, it can and should be possible in Montgomery County. While it is often portrayed as a moral or civil rights issue, the elimination of the achievement gap is a socioeconomic imperative. These children will eventually be our employment base. If they are not employable, our economy is not sustainable, and our tax base will dwindle.
One of the main drivers of the achievement gap is the knowledge drop-off that occurs in the summer. While privileged students travel, play instruments, read and participate in enrichment activities, many students from families with limited means sit at home watching television. According to one study, more than half of the achievement gap can be explained by “unequal access to summer learning opportunities.” If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, schools are only part of the equation.
Last year, I proposed creating the Children’s Opportunity Fund to leverage private investment for high-quality programs. Given our perpetual budget challenges, it is essential that we retool existing programs and develop public-private partnerships to take successful programs to scale.
The first Opportunity Fund program was recently approved by the council, bringing the Building Educated Leaders for Life program to the county. This program, with matching funds from the Norman and Ruth Rales Foundation, will serve more than 4,000 students from low-income families over the next four years. While this is an important first step, we must ultimately establish a Children’s Trust Fund, similar to the model in Miami-Dade County, so these sorts of programs have a dedicated revenue stream.
With the county’s school population projected to increase by about 2,000 students per year for the foreseeable future, we cannot pretend the achievement gap is an isolated problem. If the achievement gap does not improve, it will eventually affect the quality of education throughout the county, not just in certain schools.
The time has come to demand strategic action and consistent resources to address the inequality that exists in our educational system. Our elected officials and community leaders must realize that we must act now to address this socioeconomic imperative.
Montgomery County is facing an identity crisis. We can either accept this reality or pretend the only drama in our lives is on Bravo.
The writer, a Democrat, represents the Mid-County area on the Montgomery County Council.