About fifty or sixty people attended the session. Attendees were randomly assigned to small groups and given two exercises to do. Long story short: I did not find the exercises to be a useful way to give meaningful input to the district. Here are some of my impressions from the meeting.
The superintendent made it clear that we had to start with certain givens or “mandates.” First, we were not being asked our opinions about the diversity policy itself; we were being asked only for input on how to meet the policy’s predetermined goals. Second, we had to confine our suggestions to the six attendance areas in this particular “cluster”—Twain, Lemme, Longfellow, Hills, Wood, and the yet-to-be-built southeast elementary—and not try to redistrict those schools by drawing on other areas.
I was against the diversity policy when the board adopted it. I was in favor of reducing FRL disparities between schools, but I didn’t think it made sense to commit to numerical goals without first discussing what it would take to reach those goals. My fear was that if the board passed the diversity policy without first discussing what tradeoffs it would entail and whether the benefits were worth the tradeoffs, it would end up never having that discussion. Instead, the board would start saying that “we have to meet these numerical goals, no matter what the tradeoffs, because the policy requires it”—even though the policy was its own creation.
That seems to be exactly what is happening. The superintendent presented the diversity goals as faits accomplis, saying “we have to meet those goals.” It’s true that the administration has to meet them in making a proposal to the board. But there’s no reason the public has to take the numerical goals as its own. By instructing the attendees to take the goals as a given, the district seemed to be trying to corral the debate and deter the public from offering unwelcome opinions, as it has done in so many of its other attempts at “engagement.” (See posts here, here, here, here, here and here.)
The first exercise asked each group to rank seven “expectations” of the redistricting process:
Ensure equity in educational opportunities for all studentsThere was also a space for “Other.”
Keep communities together
Address immediate, short-term, and long-term needs
Minimize student disruptions
Consider projections of future enrollment
Move fewest number of students
The immediate problem was that it was not clear what many of these items meant. For example, how could one possibly rank the importance of “addressing immediate, short-term, and long-term needs” against any other item? That one pretty much says it all, no?
I think all of us were in favor of “ensuring equity in educational opportunities for all students”—who could be against it?—but it was hard to know what that one meant, too. People in my group identified many possible meanings. Since this was a redistricting forum, it made sense to think of it in terms of how it could affect redistricting decisions, but even that wasn’t clear. Some people think “ensuring equity” necessitates balancing out FRL rates among schools; others think there are ways to ensure equity even when FRL rates vary among schools; others think it’s inequitable for poor kids to bear the brunt of being transported longer distances for the sake of reducing FRL disparities. All of those people might rank equity very high, yet have different opinions about how it should affect redistricting decisions.
We all wanted to give a high rank to “ensuring equity,” but none of us could be sure how the district would interpret that phrase, so we didn’t know what the implications of our ranking would be for redistricting.
It felt like the district was using a kind of code, understood by some attendees but not by many others (including me). Was “equity” the code for equalizing FRL rates at any cost? Was “safety” the code for not transporting kids across major roads or highways? What would it mean not to “consider projections of future enrollment”? If you invite people to a discussion but then talk in code, those people are more likely to feel excluded than heard.
Understanding what “equity” meant was even more perplexing because of the district’s choice of schools to cluster. One person at my table quickly did the math about projected capacity and FRL rates. Simply meeting the “mandates” would require that each of these six schools have a 50% FRL rate—virtually no variation allowed. So what could it mean to give a high rank to “ensuring equity”? Whether we ranked it at the top or the bottom, the district would have to equalize the FRL rates at all six schools.
Because we were not allowed to reach outside this particular cluster, there was no way to express a desire to bring the FRL rates in each of these schools down below 50%—another example of how the restrictions on the process kept people from giving the input they may have most wanted to give.
In every discussion about redistricting that I’ve ever heard, one of the most common concerns is that kids might have to attend schools too far from where they live. Since low-income families tend to be concentrated in specific parts of town and high-income families in others, any attempt to reduce FRL disparities or generate economic diversity will usually involve sending some kids to school farther from their homes. How much you’re willing to do that depends on how you prioritize those competing values.
Yet the exercise offered no item about minimizing the distance kids would have to travel to school. People who valued reducing FRL disparities could give their highest ranking to “ensuring equity”; but people who valued minimizing the distance to school had to scribble it under “Other.” What’s the point of asking the public for its input if you’re going to omit one of the most predictable choices from the list of options?
(“Keeping communities together” does not address the distance concern, since whole neighborhoods could be transported to a relatively distant school (as some are now). Neither do “minimize student disruptions”—which we all took to refer to the number of times any one kid would have to change schools—or “move fewest number of students,” since many kids are already assigned to schools relatively far from their homes.)
After a similar session held last week, the head of the PTO at Kirkwood Elementary—a school with a particularly high FRL rate—argued against the diversity policy, saying:
I haven’t heard of a Kirkwood parent yet that’s for the diversity policy. And who wants to be bused to another school? . . . We want to stay in our neighborhood. What we want is, instead of more money being spent on buses and bus drivers, is have more teaching help in the classroom — so paraeducators or whatever it takes. We think that would really help us.I find the arguments for reducing FRL disparities persuasive, but hearing this argument certainly gives me pause. I’m very suspicious of attempts to force policies on people against their will “for their own good.” Why should I think that I’m a better judge of what’s in a particular community’s interest than the people of that community are?
Again, to reduce FRL disparities, some kids are going to have to go to school farther from home. If that burden is going to fall disproportionately on kids from low-income homes, and if it’s true that many of those families oppose that idea, I’d start to have real doubts about the wisdom and fairness of the policy. In any event, this strikes me as a very important issue that the district should want some feedback on—but the work session did nothing to solicit that input.
For the second exercise, each group was given a map of the district and asked to draw new district lines on the map. This was not a productive exercise. In the short time that was provided, it was virtually impossible to know how particular lines would affect enrollment and diversity and to get a group consensus on a particular map.
In sum, the session did not seem to provide a meaningful opportunity for people to provide input into the redistricting process. There was just too little sense of how ranking the “expectations” would translate into concrete redistricting choices.
How could the process have been improved? Here are some suggestions:
First, the district could have asked questions that more specifically probed people’s feelings toward possible tradeoffs posed by redistricting. For example:
Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements (1 for strongly agree, 5 for strongly disagree):Those aren’t perfect, but questions like those would give the district a much better sense of how people would make the specific tradeoffs involved in redistricting.
I support doing whatever is necessary to achieve roughly equal FRL rates at each school, even if that means sending many kids to schools that are significantly farther from their homes than their current school is.
I support doing whatever is necessary to bring FRL rates at every school under 50%, but I do not support sending kids to schools farther from their homes just to make all FRL rates roughly equal.
I support addressing FRL disparities by reallocating resources to schools with greater needs and by making modest, but not extensive, boundary changes.
I do not think students should be assigned to schools farther from their homes just for the sake of reducing high FRL concentrations.
Second, the district should, at some point, present the public with specific redistricting scenarios that embody a real range of different values and priorities. From what I can tell, the district has no plans to do so. Why use the largely meaningless “expectations” exercise, but stop short of asking people about actual possible redistricting scenarios?
It’s easy to wonder whether the district wants to give the appearance of public input without putting any real constraints on the choices it can make.
Why is the district so determined to make people give their input at these meetings in group form, rather than individually? I liked the group discussion and found it helpful, but there’s no reason the district couldn’t collect preference forms from every person, rather than from every group, after the discussion. What is the effect of collecting group reports instead?
One effect is that minority viewpoints are de-emphasized or made to disappear. If a minority of the people at each table disagrees strongly with the majority, you’ll never know it when the tables report their “consensus” results. The district can’t make dissenters go away, but by collecting input from groups rather than from individuals, it can make them pretty invisible. A district that was genuinely interested in hearing public input (on the issue of diversity, of all things) wouldn’t choose that structure.
The most enjoyable part of the exercise was getting to talk with my table-mates—seven civic-minded people who came out to talk in good faith about issues that were important to them. I came away thinking that they deserved a better session.
There are several more of these sessions scheduled, including for the junior high and high school levels. Are they worth attending? It’s not pointless, since you may get to have an interesting conversation with other people from the community. But I wouldn’t put high hopes on having meaningful input into the redistricting process. (And let’s not forget how little the board paid attention to public preferences after the last set of community workshops, on the facilities plan.)
If you go, I recommend that you be prepared to depart from the script: write out your own specific concerns, define your terms, don’t limit yourself to the choices provided, don’t take the “mandates” as binding, and submit your response individually if you need to. Show the district what public input really looks like.