When the school board was debating its Diversity Policy last year, I had mixed feelings. It does seem wrong that the district’s low-income families are packed very disproportionately into three or four elementary schools, and it’s not hard to imagine how that could put a strain on the resources of those schools. The Diversity Policy was an attempt to address that problem. It did so by requiring that the percentage of kids receiving free- and reduced-price lunches at any school—the district’s proxy for low-income status—be no more than fifteen percentage points above the district-wide average. What bothered me about the Policy, and the reason I ended up opposing it, was that it committed itself to those numerical goals without any inquiry into what it would take to meet them. I don’t think it makes sense to adopt a policy that pursues one value with no consideration of its effect on other, possibly competing values. (In fact, that kind of approach is the cause of many problems in education policy today. See posts here and here.)
I didn’t get too worried about it, though, because I knew that any implementation of the policy would need to get board approval, so the discussion of costs and benefits could wait until there was a concrete proposal for meeting the diversity goals. Now the superintendent has recommended specific redistricting maps for portions of both the east and west sides. This means we can finally get a sense of just what it takes to reach the diversity goals, and just what the concrete disadvantages are. My fear, though, is that the board will argue that it has to adopt these maps to “comply with the policy,” and that we will never get the discussion of whether the benefit of pursuing the goals outweighs the cost.
In the community meetings that the district held to get public input into the map-drawing process, the issue of whether to pursue the goals was always kept off the table. People were asked only to discuss how to pursue the goals through redistricting. It’s as if the district is determined to implement the policy without ever discussing—or seeking public input on—whether the costs outweigh the benefits.
But there are costs, and not just fiscal ones. The map-drawing process has made it clear that the burden of meeting the goals through redistricting falls primarily on the kids from low-income families. There is no way, for example, to bring Kirkwood’s FRL rate down without sending many of its FRL kids to schools much farther from their homes. For complicated domino-effect reasons, it also requires sending many FRL kids who go to Coralville Central to a more distant school, too, even though Coralville Central’s FRL rate is close to the average.
The same is true of FRL kids at Twain and Grant Wood schools. In some cases, it’s very clear that low-income areas (e.g, Broadway and Dolphin Lake Point) have been singled out to be sent to more distant schools. (I understand that the construction of a new school on the east side means that some redistricting has to happen there. But it’s clear that some of the choices of how to do that were driven solely by meeting the diversity goals.)
When you live off Fifth Street in Coralville, walking to Lincoln is a very different task than walking to Kirkwood. It’s especially a concern when you’re talking about families who have fewer resources and may be less able to drive their kids to and from school—for example, in bad weather. The district could offer a bus, but taking a bus to school is also different from walking to a nearby school, and could, for example, make it harder for kids to take part in after-school activities.
There are also legitimate concerns about the intangible costs of identifying some kids as being from low-income areas and as being brought into a different school for the stated purpose of spreading the FRL kids out. (I don’t even like using the phrase “FRL kids,” but that is how the policy works, and “low-income kids” is an even worse shorthand.) And there are concerns about how welcome those kids will feel, and about how their destination schools will respond to their presence there.
There will also be disruption for all kids, rich or poor or in-between, who are affected by the boundary changes. At Coralville Central, for example, eighty percent of the current students will be assigned to other schools. Maybe that kind of short-term disruption should not carry much weight if there are clear long-term benefits—though that’s easy to say if you’re not the third-grader who has to go to an unfamiliar school while her friends go somewhere else. Either way, it’s still a cost that should factor into the analysis.
Do these possible costs outweigh the possible benefits? There is no obvious right answer. My inclination is not to presume that I know better than the people who are supposed to benefit from the policy. But I’ve seen no evidence that the district’s low-income families on the whole support this policy, or that they agree that they’ll be better off as a result of these proposed attendance zone changes. That would make a big difference to me, but (so far, at least) it just isn’t there. Without that, the board shouldn’t adopt such large-scale boundary changes that would send so many kids from low-income families to schools much farther from their homes.