Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is this how public education in Iowa City will wither and die?

I recently heard the following argument, which I’m paraphrasing here as best as I can (with perhaps a little embellishment):

Iowa City has two large high schools. People naturally compare them. Historically, both have been considered “good schools.” There are some disparities between what the two schools offer; people can argue about how bad those disparities are, but they’re there. One of the disparities is in the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-rate lunches, a rough measure of how many kids are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The disparity is currently not very large, but it is there. The school board has toyed with boundary plans to try to keep that disparity from growing, but it has also vacillated and backtracked, and the longer it delays, the more there is a real possibility that the disparity will grow.

Given that there are two high schools populated by two different parts of town, there is the possibility that politics will aggravate the existing disparities between them. Whichever side of town has fewer motivated voters, or less political influence, might be likely to bear the brunt of hard fiscal decisions more than the other. People focusing only on their own narrow, short-term interests might be likely to vote for school board candidates who will benefit the schools on their side of town at the expense of those on the other side.

This thinking, however, is not in the best interests of people on either side of town. Here’s why. If the schools on one side of town become sufficiently worse off than those on the other side, a domino effect will ensue. People who live on the “wrong” side of town -- or at least the better-off ones -- will start withdrawing from the public system and sending their kids to private schools. The high school on that side of town will then have fewer students, and will thus receive less money, employ fewer teachers, and provide fewer offerings, causing more families to abandon it, and so on.

The effect will be to reduce the number of people with an incentive to support the public schools politically -- which will affect the schools on both sides of town. When it comes time to approve a bond issue or a school tax increase, there will be fewer people motivated to support it. As the schools struggle more for resources, more families will abandon them for the privates, accelerating the trend. Eventually, the schools on both sides of town will decline, and what was once an innocuous division between one side of town and the other will become an invidious division between the rich families in the private schools and the middle-class and poor families in the struggling publics.

The upshot: People who care about the future of Iowa City’s public schools -- regardless of which side of town they live on -- should do two things. First, they should forswear the “our side vs. their side” mentality. Second, they should make it a priority -- for the sake of all parts of the district -- to minimize the disparities between the schools on each side of town. Otherwise, the system is destined to cycle downward into decline.

Reactions? What’s wrong with that logic?


KD said...

Wow, there is a lot to think about in your blog post.

With respect to the boundary issues, I definitely think we should be using available capacity at the smaller high school to balance what offerings can be made at that school. I'm less concerned about the SES balance, however, it seems like making boundary changes to utilize existing capacity would also makes the SES issues more balanced. While this isn't mentioned in your post, I can't believe that people would want to think about building another high school before we have fully utilized the resources we have. My opinion is that building an additional high school before it is necessary will be a huge drain on the district.

I'm not sure if I see the private schools gaining that many more students, but who knows. I could see some of the smaller surrounding districts(like CCA and Solon) gaining more students over time.

I think the fact that the ICCSD has put tremendous resources into building schools on one side of town and not the other certainly makes it more likely any potential disparities should occur.

As someone who isn't an Iowa City native the "side" mentality is puzzling. I'm not sure what the future will bring. To the point that at least one of my children could be affected by fewer resources, that certainly affects who I might vote for.

Chris said...

Thanks for the comment, KD. I think what's interesting about the argument is the way it sees a kind of "prisoner's dilemma" -- that if each side acts in what appears to be its immediate short-term interest, both sides will end up worse off. On the other hand, it's hard to blame anyone for acting in the short-term interests of their kids, especially given the uncertainties about the long term. I want public education to succeed, but even I don't think that I have a duty to send my kids to the public schools no matter what they're like.

Right now, the situation is mitigated by the lack of private options. Regina is just about all there is. But, over time, that could change, especially if the disparities between east and west get larger. And, as you point out, CCA and Solon are also options, at least when people are deciding where to live.

I do think there are other areas of the country where well-off parents have fled the public schools and triggered the kind of downward spiral described above.

A few years back, when our kids were just starting school, we considered moving back east (New England or New York), and one of the things that put us off was how the school systems were so clearly stratified by SES. In the areas we were considering, we would have had to choose between the towns with "bad" schools and affordable homes, and the towns with "good" schools where we couldn't afford to live. Compared to those places, Iowa City has a real "one district" feel to it. It will be a shame if Iowa City ends up with that same dynamic we saw elsewhere.

It's an interesting thought experiment to imagine how the local debate over school issues might be different if there were only one high school instead of two. (I'm not advocating we get rid of a high school -- just making the point that having two "sides" does change the way people think.)

KD said...

As I understand it ICCSD students can presently open enroll into districts like CCA and Solon, at the expense of the ICCSD. I know occasionally these transfer requests are included in the school board minutes.

I've also hear parents say during the redistricting forums that they would open enroll to districts like CCA if the boundaries were changed in a way that they viewed as unfavorable.

I meant to include that in my previous post, when I was talking about those schools gaining students.

As far as a downward spiral, I think the potential is certainly there...just when will it occur is the question. I have a partisan viewpoint on the subject, of course.

Chris said...

KD -- Thanks for the info about transfers. I thought that might be the case, but I wasn't sure. I wonder who decides whether those kind of transfers are allowed. Is it our school board, or some state authority?

Regardless, there's no getting around the fact that you can't force people to send their kids to a school system if they don't want to. I don't think that's a bad thing, either; it's part of what forces the system to stay at least minimally responsive to what district residents want. But it does make managing the district into an awfully tricky balancing act . . .

KD said...

From the information I read, according to Iowa law, a school district has to approve any request to open enroll out of the district, except when the request if filed after the deadline. There are five districts in the state with diversity plans(Davenport, Des Moines, Waterloo, Postville and West Liberty) that can reject requests to transfer out of the district in certain circumstances.

The district that the student is open enrolling into can reject the transfer...but in certain circumstances must accept the transfer.


KD said...

How does one work to change the disparities between the high schools without appearing to be interested in one side or the other....I think that is where it gets tricky.

Chris said...

Yeah, that seems totally right, and I don't know what the answer is. I do think that no school is an island, and that people might recognize that if someone makes the argument the right way. A board candidate, for example.