I promise this won’t become A Blog About Redistricting. As KD pointed out in the comments to the last post, the redistricting issue has been talked to death, and seems to have distracted attention from other issues, including issues about educational philosophy, about how the kids are being treated, and about what the kids are learning, which are more the focus of this blog. But before returning to those issues, I want to add a few thoughts to my last post about the idea of building a new school on the far east side of Iowa City.
One issue that arose in the comments is how the creation of a new neighborhood school would affect Twain Elementary, which has a particularly high percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches (“FRL”), an indicator of the number of low-income students. Twain is not the only school with relatively high FRL numbers, but it’s a good example of one, so the potential effect of a new school on Twain raises broader issues about how our community will treat the educational needs of lower-income kids.
It can be challenging to talk about that issue, especially in terms of a particular school. On the one hand, people might reasonably point out that a school with a higher concentration of low-income families faces certain challenges that other schools don’t face, and might reasonably ask the community to address those challenges. On the other hand, pointing out those challenges can lead people elsewhere to perceive the school as having more problems than it actually does, and those perceptions can then make it harder to address the challenges it has. Anyone who has contact with Twain – families, teachers – agrees that there are a lot of good things happening there.
The district’s latest boundary proposal would try, at least a little, to lower the FRL percentage at Twain, by shifting some children from higher-income areas into that attendance area. As an effort in that direction, it seems as good (or as bad) as any. The Twain families, at least judging from the comments of their PTO president, seem to think it would be good for the school. But the petition to build a new elementary school on the far east side appears to have been triggered by those proposed boundary changes.
I strongly sympathize with people’s desire to have their elementary-age kids go to school close to home. I certainly don’t think wanting a neighborhood school makes you a bad person. I love that my kids can walk to school without crossing a street. But it remains true that the concept of neighborhood schools is inherently in some tension with the goal of making a school like Twain more socioeconomically diverse (because our neighborhoods, alas, are not socioeconomically diverse). It’s hard to see how building a new neighborhood school in a relatively well-off area can do anything but undermine the effort to reduce the concentration of lower-income families in the Twain attendance area.
Maybe the community is so fond of neighborhood schools that it’s unwilling to use boundary changes to address the challenges represented by high FRL concentrations. If that’s the case, then I think the community ought to address those challenges in other ways. And whether we have sufficiently addressed them should depend on what I would call (for lack of a better name) the Indifference Test: Assume that the demographics of the high-FRL schools are unchanged. What would it take to make people indifferent between a high-FRL school and another, equidistant school with a different demographic profile? How many additional resources – diverted, necessarily, from other schools – would it take before people would start to say, “Hey, maybe my kids would be better off at Twain”? Very small classes? More teachers available to give one-on-one help? Newer, higher-tech facilities? Free after-school care? How much would it take before the number of families asking to transfer in equaled the number asking to transfer out, and the number of families looking to buy houses in Twain equaled the number avoiding it?
We may not have the collective will to significantly reduce Twain’s FRL numbers through redistricting. But if we can’t satisfy that Indifference Test, then we’re really resigning ourselves to the idea that the quality of a child’s education should depend on what part of town he or she lives in, or on how much money his or her parents have. If we fall short of satisfying the Indifference Test, it means we’re choosing to give the kids in better-off neighborhoods a better education, just because we can. Judging from the reaction to the redistricting proposal, we’re nowhere near satisfying that test now. When the petition comes along that proposes that kind of solution, I’ll be all ears.