Right before the 2011 board election, there was a candidate forum focused entirely on issues related to redistricting. Here’s what the candidates who were elected had to say (transcript after the jump):
I included Karla Cook in that clip, even though she’s no longer on the board, because she was elected, which tells us something about what the voters wanted, and because she was part of the 4-3 board majority who enacted the Diversity Policy, which directed the superintendent to meet numerical goals for the percentage of kids eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch at each school. Marla Swesey and Sally Hoelscher also voted for the Diversity Policy, while Patti Fields and Jeff McGinness voted against it. (Once it passed, McGinness said that he would work to move forward with it.)
The Diversity Policy did require the superintendent to meet the diversity goals by certain dates, and put very few restrictions on how to meet them. It did not, however, require that the goals be met through extensive redistricting. In fact, it contained language suggesting a preference against “non-voluntary movement of students,” and its supporters on the board emphasized the possibility of using incentives such as magnet schools to entice students to change schools voluntarily.
The superintendent’s proposal, however, uses “non-voluntary movement” as the primary (and almost exclusive) means of meeting the diversity goals. Under the proposed maps, for example, almost 80% of the kids at Coralville Central would change schools; so would 63% of the kids at Kirkwood and 54% of the kids at Lincoln. Those changes would be attributable almost entirely to pursuing the diversity goals, since there is no new school opening in that cluster. Although the changes do not involve much busing, many of them would send kids (especially kids from low-income areas) to schools significantly farther from their homes. It’s awfully hard to square that kind of extensive, diversity-driven redistricting with the board members’ positions as candidates.
My point isn’t that board members can never change their views, though fidelity to campaign stances does have value in a democracy. My point is that there is no reason to think the community supports the superintendent’s approach, and that, if anything, the election of these board members is evidence of the opposite. We can only speculate about what would have happened to candidates who campaigned on boundary changes like these, because nobody did.
There was no similar redistricting-themed forum in 2013, though some questions at the different forums did touch on the issue. I am trying to track down those videos and will update this post when I do. In the meantime, the best source for what the 2013 candidates said on the issue is their responses to the North Corridor Parents’ questionnaire, which asked several specific questions on the topic of redistricting and the Diversity Policy. The answers are too extensive to re-post here, but long story short, of the three candidates who were elected, Brian Kirschling was very supportive of the policy, Tuyet Dorau was the least supportive, and Chris Lynch was somewhere in between. There wasn’t much discussion of the magnitude of the redistricting that would have to occur. (The candidates’ responses to the Coalition for Racial Justice’s Racial Equity Survey are also informative, though they make less reference to the Diversity Policy and redistricting.)
The video above is taken from a longer forum in which there were a number of other questions about redistricting and diversity. I’ve edited it down to just the candidates who won and to just the two questions that were most directly about how and whether to use redistricting to achieve diversity. You can watch the full video of the forum here. Here is a transcript of the above video:
Question: What should be the proper mix of cultural and economic backgrounds and also achievement at an Iowa City School District elementary school, or should that matter at all? And Karla Cook, we’ll start with you.
Karla Cook: Well, I obviously would love to see a mix of all economic levels, of all cultural levels. I think we can learn from—all students can learn from every other student. But I’m not sure that I would redistrict in order to achieve that. I don’t think that that should be the goal, is to say, we have three people from India and two people from France, and, you know, to make a mixture like that. I do think that every one of the schools is good, and I think that when you redistrict, we want to continue to be able to say that about every school, that they all offer excellent programs, that they all offer children what they need when they’re learning, and as long as we can say that, the schools are appropriate.
Patti Fields: I think that having a strong mix of cultural and economic, and different background students and mix of achievement does make for a rich school. However, I don’t support using that as a primary criteria for redistricting. I think that one of the greatest things that we can do in planning for schools and for supporting families is having a close connection where there’s access to that school for the family, so that they feel a part of that community. I think using only distance—or using transportation as the way to move students around is not something that is family-friendly. However, when we have a chance and are drawing new boundaries for schools, that is one of the factors that we can consider when we’re doing new boundaries, as long as it’s within a close range of the attendance area.
Sally Hoelscher: I agree that a nice mix would be a good thing to see, but I also agree that this is not a single reason to redistrict kids. When redistricting, you need to look at the whole picture and of course keep in mind what your goals are, and I think, though, that the ultimate goal in our district is, regardless of the cultural, economic, achievement mix in any school, what can we do in that school to make sure that every child has an opportunity to excel.
Jeff McGinness: I think in a perfect world we’d be able to attain, you know, the balance between economic, cultural, and achievement across our schools, but the world isn’t necessarily perfect, and nor is Iowa City, as much as I like to think it is. The factors that we are talking about are just factors that need to be considered when you enter into a discussion about redistricting. They’re no more important than any of the other factors. There’s a lot of other factors that I think are vastly more important. Like Phil said, you don’t want to be busing people a long distance, and certainly not busing people past one school to get to the next, like we’ve done in the past, as well as the concerns for safety. There’s also heightened concerns about being sure that there’s stability in a child’s education. There’s been a lot of talk about the desire to revisit the redistricting year after year after year. Well, families and children deserve some sort of stability in this process. Yes, there’s times that will come up, and we need to constantly talk about the issue, but constantly redoing things, and constantly moving people around, I don’t think is going to serve any benefit, especially if we’re only talking about those factors solely. Now if there’s larger things, yes, then those come into play.
Marla Swesey: I agree with some of the comments the other candidates made about it not being the only factor that you need to consider, but I do remember when I was teaching that I had classrooms where, if I had a really good mix of students, they did achieve better by learning from each other, and not only in the academic sense but also in the social sense as well. I don’t know that that’s the most important thing in the classroom, but I do know that to have students that feel comfortable and safe and have a stable environment, like what was mentioned before, is a very important factor, so I am very aware of how parents need to be a part of their students’ education. The family resource centers we have in our schools help that, help them feel better about being a part of the school family, and I am not a fan of having the buses driving past—taking the students past the school that’s closest to their homes just to balance out somebody else’s mix. So I do think we can look at that and try to make it better for those students that need that stability.
Question: How do you propose, or do you propose, to achieve socioeconomic balance in our elementary schools in a community where we have racial segregation, limited funds, and strong allegiance to the concept of neighborhood schools? And this question starts with Sally.
Sally Hoelscher: I think we touched on this issue when we talked earlier about how necessary it was to have a cultural and an economic and an achievement mix in the schools, and as far as socioeconomic mix, I think it is something that we achieve to do, that we strive to have that balance. However, I don’t think that that is the driving concern behind redistricting. I’m not in favor of busing kids across the district in order to change the socioeconomic mix. I think that there are other factors that we’ve discussed, such as the community feel of the schools, and the neighborhood feel, that are much more important, and I think the issue becomes providing the resources so that whatever the socioeconomic status is of the students in the school, they are receiving the opportunities that they need to excel.
Jeff McGinness: Like we talked about before, I think the socioeconomic balance is a factor that needs to be talked about, it’s not the factor. There’s lots of factors that come into play when you’re talking about the composition of any school or a number of schools. It’s the cultural aspect, it’s the achievement aspect, it’s all the things we talked about before in the previous answer, and so I really don’t have much different things to say, so I don’t want to waste your time, but it’s something that needs to be discussed and looked at, but again, not at the cost of all the other factors, and certainly not a factor that’s going to trump all the other ones that come into play.
Marla Swesey: I also think we touched on this in the other question, and I think it’s a good thing to look at and to think about, but I’m not sure that we can make any purposeful changes in that regard if we’re going to try not to have kids bused from one place to another all the time. I think what happened in our district that has made this such an issue is because we had the No Child Left Behind come into play and we have SINA schools, Schools in Need of Assistance, and when that happened, people panicked and a lot of students left the schools that they thought were not as good as what they should be, so we had school populations being a little unbalanced because of that regard too, because not everyone could just pick and move to another school. But I do think that it’s something that we can get changed and hopefully we will be able to get a waiver from the state so that we won’t have to have those SINA schools anymore, and hopefully the neighborhood will be more balanced in just having the people that live around that school attend that school.
Karla Cook: I think I said earlier that I wouldn’t bus for cultural reasons or I would not bus for socioeconomic reasons either, but I’d like to see us try something innovative that might get the students to mix with each other on certain occasions, perhaps, four times a year, partner up two schools and let them experience each other’s programs, perhaps put on some kind of a play, a carnival, a track meet, you know, something where you could get two schools together and they could meet with the other students and find out that they’re just students like they are and they have the same concerns and the same goals and I think that would be a way for everyone to learn. It would let us use our brains, our talents here in town to start something new rather than just complain about something old.
Patti Fields: I think there are a lot of factors that have affected the isolations that you were mentioning, certainly back the questions before about our relationships with cities and with planning can have an effect on that, for a longer-term plan. However, I think for supporting schools and families, it’s about how we support families to provide the best education that we can, and we do certain programs within schools, but I also think there is lots of room to be creative, to look at other innovative ways to reach families, to offer different programs, and it’s about how we are differentiating between schools. The needs of the schools are not all the same, so always applying the same rules to everyone is not always in the best interest.