Monday, May 26, 2014

What the board members said about redistricting when they were candidates

I wrote yesterday that there’s no reason to think that the community supports using major elementary school boundary changes to meet the district’s diversity goals. One reason for that is that most of the current board members did not campaign on that kind of approach when they were running for the board.

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.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

That was then

I’ve been drafting a post about what our current board members said about redistricting when they were running for the board, and I came across this moment, on a different issue, from the 2011 school board campaign (transcript after the jump):

All five of those candidates, after they were elected, supported the plan to close Hoover Elementary and build 500-student schools in cornfields on the edge of town. (Four of them voted “yes” on the closure. Swesey, after explaining why she was going to vote “yes,” voted “no” when it became clear that there were enough votes to pass it without her support. In any event, she later opposed reconsidering the closure.) It’s enough to make you wonder whether there’s any point in going to candidate forums. Sure, board members can change their minds about an issue. But if you run for office on one platform, and then suddenly realize, after you’re elected, that you support a very different one, shouldn’t you get the community on board for your new opinion before imposing it?

School board should reject top-down approach to redistricting

I posted last week about some of my doubts about the superintendent’s recommended elementary school boundary changes. But there’s another, more basic objection to the proposed maps: there’s no reason to believe that they have the support of the community.

If watching national education policy for the last ten years should teach a person anything, it’s skepticism toward top-down “reforms.” From the creators of No Child Left Behind to Arne Duncan to Bill Gates to proponents of the Common Core, today’s education “reformers” have one thing in common: they’re so sure they’re right that they don’t care whether the affected communities agree. As they impose their policies on local school districts, regardless of whether the people in those districts want them, they often use the most high-minded rhetoric. When the people who want to privatize education and close schools in impoverished neighborhoods—inevitably citing studies about “student achievement”—tell you that their cause is “the civil rights issue of our time,” it’s a good moment to be skeptical.

The proposal to enact major boundary changes to meet the district’s diversity goals, largely by sending kids from low-income families to schools farther from their homes, has some unfortunate parallels to other top-down policies. I believe its supporters have the best of intentions (unlike some of the obviously profit-driven participants in the national ed reform debate). But there’s no indication that supporters of this approach have persuaded the community of its wisdom, or even that they’ve persuaded the low-income families who are its supposed beneficiaries and who will bear the brunt of the disruption. The board shouldn’t impose a change of this magnitude if the community doesn’t support it.

I’d feel differently if the current board members had run for office advocating major diversity-driven boundary changes, but they didn’t. (On that, more in my next post.) Nor has the community “engagement” process demonstrated support for that approach. At the community workshops, the district pointedly instructed the public to take the diversity policy’s numerical goals as a given, asking the participants only for input on how to use redistricting to meet the goals, not on whether to do that. It’s almost as if the district learned its lesson from the facilities workshops: if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.

I sometimes hear, in response, that “you can’t please everyone,” but that’s just fighting a straw man. Of course you can’t please everyone; no one is suggesting that every change has to be unanimous. Any redistricting is going to make some people unhappy. But that can’t justify imposing a change that doesn’t have the support of most of the broader community. It’s a big leap from “You can’t please everyone” to “So therefore we should adopt my ideas regardless of what the community wants.”

It is understandably tempting for people, even for those who consider themselves progressive, to impose their policies on the community when they have the chance, even without public support. But in the long run, that just legitimizes the kind of top-down government-by-elites that is hostile to progressive values (and to many strands of conservative values as well). If you’re against top-down governance only when you disagree with the policies, you’re not against top-down governance.

Everybody’s got a great idea. The best thing you can do for people, though, isn’t to impose your great idea on them. It’s to empower them democratically. Then try to win them over to your idea. I’m sure that in any community-driven system, many of my ideas would be voted down, but I’d trade all of my policy preferences for a school system that reflected the community’s values. I’d much rather put my kids’ education in the hands of the greater Iowa City community than in the hands of any set of people who think they know better.

Related posts here and here.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Expensive construction is expensive

According to the latest school board agenda packet, the administration is recommending that the district delay the renovation and expansion of Twain Elementary that was supposed to begin this summer, because the bids came in much higher than expected.

It’s not a good sign when the very first project in the Facilities Master Plan has to be delayed and re-bid, “with possible revisions in the scope,” because it’s too expensive.

At some point, won’t it make sense to reconsider tearing down existing capacity while building new capacity elsewhere? I’m all in favor of Twain getting renovations, air conditioning, and a gym or multi-purpose room, but what is the urgency about adding new classrooms? Under the most recent redistricting proposal, both Twain and the new South elementary school will be only two-thirds full. Even if the district wants to leave some extra space to try a magnet school at Twain, the capacity is there in the short-term, and the addition can wait. But instead, the Twain project includes not only renovations but an addition—and then it turns out to be so expensive that the whole thing may be delayed.

Just wait until we see the actual price tag for the Mann and Longfellow additions, which are much bigger than the Twain addition. Both of those schools could have gotten air conditioning, renovations, and multi-purpose rooms sooner if the projects hadn’t been accompanied by huge, expensive additions—none of which would be necessary if Hoover were kept open. Now those schools will have to wait much longer—all the while wondering whether the projects will ever happen as planned, or whether they too will end up facing “possible revisions in the scope.”

We don’t need to tear down 300 seats of capacity at Hoover. We don’t need to build 330 seats of new capacity onto Longfellow and Mann. We don’t need to rush into adding capacity to Twain. What those buildings need is air conditioning, renovations, and multi-purpose rooms. The district’s drive to shift toward fewer, larger elementaries, farther away from where people live, is what’s delaying and endangering the construction that we actually need.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Board needs to consider both costs and benefits of proposed attendance zones

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.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The needless, drastic rezoning of Coralville Central

It’s become clear that the district intends to comply with its diversity policy almost entirely through redistricting, not through incentives or “voluntary movement,” and primarily by moving kids from low-income families to schools that are significantly farther from their homes, and without regard to what those particular families might want or what the larger community wants. I don’t feel much sympathy with that project. I hope to find time to comment on it at more length sometime soon.

In the meantime, one aspect of the proposed maps seems indefensible, no matter how you feel about the larger project. Coralville Central is a school with an free and reduced-cost lunch (FRL) rate of 42% -- just a few points above the district average and easily in compliance with the diversity goals. Yet the latest proposed map would take 80% of its kids and move them to different schools, bringing in kids from other schools to fill those seats. What possible logic could drive that proposal?

I’m guessing that it’s because the diversity policy requires attendance zones to be contiguous and prohibits “islands.” The most direct way to lessen the FRL imbalance on the west side would be to trade students between Lincoln (4% FRL) and Kirkwood (74% FRL). But it’s difficult or impossible to connect any part of Lincoln to the Kirkwood zone, so the plan uses Coralville Central as a kind of middleman. If that’s the rationale, it’s a bad one. Contiguity isn’t important enough to justify enormous changes to the attendance zone of a school that could otherwise simply be left alone.

I have a lot of doubts about moving kids from Kirkwood to Lincoln, but at least I can understand the logic. Major changes to the Coralville Central zone make no sense at all.

UPDATE:Here’s a counterargument: Many of the families who are currently bused to Coralville Central from the neighborhoods north of Route 80 are within two miles of Kirkwood, and thus would no longer qualify for a bus. So the proposed map would enable the district to discontinue those buses. Much of that cost, however, wouldn’t be saved, but shifted. Putting those Coralville Central kids into Kirkwood would then mean that a roughly equal number of Kirkwood kids would have to move out, and the new plan would put them into Lincoln, reducing the FRL disparity between Lincoln and Kirkwood.  Some would go to Lincoln, and some would go to Coralville Central, bumping Coralville Central kids into Lincoln, with the ultimate effect of reducing the FRL disparity between Lincoln and Kirkwood.  Some of the transferees to Lincoln would automatically qualify for a bus, and the rest might be given busing anyway because of the difficulty of walking from Coralville to Lincoln.

So the proposed map means that fewer kids from relatively well-off families are taking the bus to school and more kids from low-income families are, for the sake of bringing down FRL disparities. Whether that’s a good idea is debatable, but at least it has a rationale.

Either way, the result is enormous, all-at-once changes to current attendance zones. Whether the larger community supports that kind of “start-from-scratch” approach to boundaries is a question that the district does not seem eager to ask. At all of the community redistricting meetings, the district has instructed people not to question whether the diversity goals are a good policy, but just to discuss how to meet the goals. Many people at the meetings have been understandably resistant to this kind of paternalistic “engagement.” The district has demonstrated no interest in wanting to know what the public thinks about the most central question raised by the maps: whether the cost of meeting the diversity goals outweighs the benefits. Why?