I recently heard the following argument, which I’m paraphrasing here as best as I can (with perhaps a little embellishment):
Iowa City has two large high schools. People naturally compare them. Historically, both have been considered “good schools.” There are some disparities between what the two schools offer; people can argue about how bad those disparities are, but they’re there. One of the disparities is in the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-rate lunches, a rough measure of how many kids are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The disparity is currently not very large, but it is there. The school board has toyed with boundary plans to try to keep that disparity from growing, but it has also vacillated and backtracked, and the longer it delays, the more there is a real possibility that the disparity will grow.
Given that there are two high schools populated by two different parts of town, there is the possibility that politics will aggravate the existing disparities between them. Whichever side of town has fewer motivated voters, or less political influence, might be likely to bear the brunt of hard fiscal decisions more than the other. People focusing only on their own narrow, short-term interests might be likely to vote for school board candidates who will benefit the schools on their side of town at the expense of those on the other side.
This thinking, however, is not in the best interests of people on either side of town. Here’s why. If the schools on one side of town become sufficiently worse off than those on the other side, a domino effect will ensue. People who live on the “wrong” side of town -- or at least the better-off ones -- will start withdrawing from the public system and sending their kids to private schools. The high school on that side of town will then have fewer students, and will thus receive less money, employ fewer teachers, and provide fewer offerings, causing more families to abandon it, and so on.
The effect will be to reduce the number of people with an incentive to support the public schools politically -- which will affect the schools on both sides of town. When it comes time to approve a bond issue or a school tax increase, there will be fewer people motivated to support it. As the schools struggle more for resources, more families will abandon them for the privates, accelerating the trend. Eventually, the schools on both sides of town will decline, and what was once an innocuous division between one side of town and the other will become an invidious division between the rich families in the private schools and the middle-class and poor families in the struggling publics.
The upshot: People who care about the future of Iowa City’s public schools -- regardless of which side of town they live on -- should do two things. First, they should forswear the “our side vs. their side” mentality. Second, they should make it a priority -- for the sake of all parts of the district -- to minimize the disparities between the schools on each side of town. Otherwise, the system is destined to cycle downward into decline.
Reactions? What’s wrong with that logic?