One of the issues in our school board election is how to address the disparities in free- and reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates at different schools. FRL status is what the district uses as a proxy for low-income status. Some of our elementary schools have very high FRL rates – as high, in one case, as 70% – which indicates challenges for those schools that other schools don’t have to deal with. The district recently passed a diversity policy aimed, in part, at reducing those disparities between schools.
There has been a lot of brainstorming about how to meet the diversity goals. Redistricting, which will have to occur when new schools are built, can help to some extent, though too much gerrymandering would not have public support. Many candidates have suggested exploring the possibility of creating magnet schools to lure a mix of incomes to schools that would otherwise be high-FRL. I agree that we should explore magnet schools, but they do raise some logistical questions. The redistricting will almost certainly have to occur before we know whether a magnet school will have enough appeal to work. We’d also have to decide whether to devote an existing school building to the project. If we do, we’re either forcing a “theme school” on people in that attendance area whether they want it or not, or we’re eliminating an attendance area altogether and relying entirely on transfers in. One alternative is to have some kids in a school be part of the magnet program, while others are not, though then the non-magnet part might still have a very high FRL.
Board candidate Brian Kirschling has promoted an idea based on a system used in Champaign, Illinois. As I understand it, the system would essentially abolish attendance areas altogether. Instead, the district would ask each family for its list of preferred schools, then assign each to a school based partly on the stated preferences and partly on factors such as diversity, proximity, siblings, and capacity.
The appeal of the idea is that the district would no longer have to draw boundaries lines and then agonize over adjusting them when they become outdated. But the idea raises several questions. If, for example, everyone in Manville wants to attend Lincoln Elementary, but not all of them can, who would make the decision about who goes and who doesn’t? I don’t think people would be comfortable giving that kind of discretion to our school administrators. It could be done purely by computer algorithm, but the algorithm would have to be so complex that it would be opaque to almost everyone. (Would we bring in consultants to create it?) And presumably it would have to give some weight to proximity, which in effect brings back the concept of attendance areas, at least as a factor. Properties closest to an elementary school would still be especially sought after – good news for Manville and Windsor Ridge, bad news for the low-to-moderate-income neighborhood across Court Street from Hoover, if it closes. Will the rich just get richer?
Moreover, the expense of buses would put limits on whether kids in any one area could attend different schools. The more you think about it, the more it starts to sound like old-fashioned attendance areas, but with fuzzy boundaries that the administrators can adjust as they see fit. In that respect, it’s similar to the idea that Nick Johnson has advocated: Firm attendance areas in a certain radius around the schools, but administratively-assigned schools for the remaining areas. Under either system, families who live farther from the schools bear the “burden” (if it is one) of not knowing in advance where they will attend, so there is still an incentive to buy in some areas rather than another, which ultimately privileges those with the money to buy in those areas.
There’s no perfect system, and all of those ideas are worth exploring and developing. Still, I keep coming back to this idea: When the new schools are built, use the accompanying redistricting to mix populations to some extent within reason. Then, if there are still disparities to be addressed, keep diverting resources into high-FRL schools until they become so appealing that people choose to transfer into them, and FRL rates fall of their own accord. In particular, bring down the class sizes in those schools until people are banging on the doors to get in. (Bad metaphor: with our new security measures, everyone has to bang on the door to get in.)
In the last election, the candidates’ common refrain was “Redistrict resources, not kids” – an indication that the basic concept is palatable to voters. But notice that I’m not arguing that we should tolerate large FRL disparities as long as those schools have a lot of resources (though some would make that argument). I’m arguing that we should make those schools so appealing that the FRL rates in fact come down via voluntary transfers.
Think of it as essentially creating a Small Class-Size Magnet School. But it has an advantage over other theme-based magnet schools, because the class sizes can be adjusted from one year to the next until you zero in on the desired diversity goal. A curricular theme, on the other hand – such as a science- or arts-focused school, either works or it doesn’t. Re-adjusting class sizes every year is a lot easier than re-adjusting boundaries or re-adjusting themes, and anyone who wants to send their kids to the school in their attendance area will still have the option to do so.
It’s true that diverting resources to one school necessarily means taking them from others, but that cost would at least be spread over many schools, and wouldn’t fall on any one group or neighborhood. (Presumably any magnet school would require diverted resources.)
Fellow blogathoner Karen W. chimes in on a different aspect of the diversity discussion here.