Paths and Tools

I found myself commenting on an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that focuses on the ICCSD’s efforts to address school demographics and minority achievement.  Since the comment got long, I decided to move it here.  I’ve been meaning to discuss the maps approved by the ICCSD BOE for opening Archibald Alexander Elementary for quite some time.  I have some fairly urgent concerns.  I’d hoped to put together a post that outlined and summarized the maps with little or no editorial comment and then work from there to explore the pitfalls and possibilities of this approach.  But that summary post still doesn’t exist, and this does.

The headline (“There is No Solitary Path to Economic Diversity“) is true, but the article doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the district is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy.

Also, in regards to approaches that purely work on altering school demographics, (as opposed to funding measures) neither inclusionary zoning nor redistricting is a viable “solitary path.” Large scale redistricting–as is needed to correct for decades of static borders–can be transformative enough that its hard to get buy-in. Inclusionary zoning & similar municipal measures can take years before they have any effect, essentially writing off whole generational cohorts to the harms of economically and racially imbalanced schools, harms that the article does recognize. Part of the complexity is that different areas require different kinds of solutions to disrupt economic isolation, & those solutions have consequences. South Iowa City needs more affluent housing, not more affordable housing. But, its absolutely unjust to gentrify the area without providing affordable housing elsewhere.  And, because the area is racially as well as economically isolated, there are a host of other issues involved that need to be addressed in order to make this work.  Iowa City likes to posture as a bastion of progressivism, but a quick search of the Twitter hashtag #blackhawkeys puts the lie to that in regards to race.  As long as schools remain closely aligned and identified specifically with “rich” (or “nice”) and “poor” (or “sketchy”) neighborhoods, then the schools will be unbalanced and will continue to move farther apart. How long before we have our first 100% FRL school in the district?

Redistricting remains a legitimate and important part of the toolkit. Housing is important and must be pursued. Redistricting and housing approaches can work in tandem & support each other in order to bring a school’s demographic to a place where it delivers the great education that our schools can to all of its students. But, of those two tools, only redistricting is anything that the district actually has any direct control over. As such, it needs to be leveraged in a way that makes the housing goals easier to pursue, not harder.

In the map that they’ve put together and accepted for opening Archibald Alexander Elementary, unfortunately, just the opposite is the case. the result of the map is that all four of the elementary schools south of Kirkwood Avenue–which means all four of the highest poverty schools in the Iowa City side of the district–are at 70%+ FRL.* Which means that the exact area around Alexander where they hope to attract new, affluent housing is deep in the middle of a very high poverty school zone, and high poverty schools create affluent outmigration, rather than attracting more affluent housing.

I understand that there are elements there–the soccer park, the newness of the school–that they expect to have a positive effect on the housing scenario. I also understand that the specific geography makes it difficult. I”m not saying that this was something that could have been solved via redistricting alone. But when you have only one tool that you can put your own hands on instead of asking someone else to pick up and use, you have to leverage it a little more effectively than was done here. You want to make it easier for that other tool to work, not harder.

*Those four schools are Mark Twain, Grant Wood, Archibald Alexander, and Hills. Two other schools on the Iowa City side, Lucas and Horace Mann, are in the 50-60% FRL range, which is where the tipping point that triggers faster affluent outmigration generally occurs.  The district’s other high poverty school is Kirkwood elementary in Coralville.

Re-stating the case

Over at Michael Tilley’s place there is a thoughtful piece about how to try to account for socioeconomic status in redistricting, given that the USDA has sent a letter to the ICCSD demanding that the district stop using Free and Reduced Lunch data in its Diversity Policy. In advance of my own thoughts about how to approach this, and whether it was wise or not to use FRL data as a metric in the first place, I want to bring some comments I made there over here, since I found myself basically making (what I hope is) a fairly succinct case for the need to address socioeconomic disparities by changing attendance zones.

I was writing in response to two different comments.  One is particularly thoughtful and civil, from Iowa Citian Josiah Mclurg.  As Michael noted in his own response, Josiah’s perspective reflects a kind of common sense view of how K-12 schools work that’s pretty prevalent here and I think elsewhere.  Its also a view that, as Josiah himself says, doesn’t come from a deep experience with either local school politics or K-12 education.  Its a well-intended and civil comment, and I appreciate Josiah letting me bring it over here:

“So, I honestly don’t see the point of redistricting based on anything except population density and school size. Granted, I don’t know much about geographical politics and education law, so I may be way off base. But I had always assumed that city services like roads, power lines, water mains, fire departments, hospitals, and schools were intended to all provide reliable and effective service to the surrounding geographical community, and to be distributed in such a way that the whole city is served.

If a particular power substation isn’t working properly, the solution isn’t to redraw the utility infrastructure such that the affected population can still get power. Yes, that might work temporarily, but it’s a hack. The long-term solution is to fix the malfunctioning substation. Likewise, I don’t see how gerrymandering the school district map can help address the root problem of schools which aren’t properly serving their local communities. Might the school board’s cease and desist simply be a stern reminder to focus on improving schools rather than shuffling children around?”

My response:
Josiah – the problem is that the power substation analogy doesn’t really capture the dynamic in this situation. A substation operates in the same way, with the same efficiency, no matter what geographic area that we put it down in. That’s not the case for a school. Teaching and learning both work very differently in a school with a high poverty concentration than they do in a more affluent school. Students who come from impoverished backgrounds, who don’t get regular meals or regular sleep, whose parents are too busy working low wage jobs to be involved in the school or to provide meaningful education-related help at home, face barriers that middle class and affluent students don’t. Concentrating large numbers of those students in a single school, as we do in some of our schools where upwards of 70% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, concentrates those problems and makes those schools work less efficiently, especially for those kids who need the most help. This isn’t a case of a “malfunctioning” school, as any school dropped into that geographic zone is going to function the exact same way.

[Edit: What I maybe should have said is that no school is going function fully effectively if dropped into that situation. Obviously, different combinations of teachers/staff/facilities are going to function differently, but their functioning is all going to be compromised in some way. The research suggests that the small percentage of kids above the poverty line are going to be ok, but that a certain number of the large concentration of kids below the poverty line are going to fall through the cracks.  My own experience suggests that, contra test scores hobbled by transciency, the high-poverty schools in the ICCSD do an excellent job of trying to negotiate an unsustainable situation.]
Its also not a static problem. Once a school reaches a tipping point, which is usually somewhere in the high 50% FRL range, it tends to accelerate, as parents of means transfer out, or move out of the neighborhood. And, its exacerbated by the disparities in what kind of housing is available in particular neighborhoods. If there aren’t attractive housing options available for middle class or affluent families in a particular school’s attendance zone, then those families will seek housing elsewhere and attend a different school, and the high poverty concentration at the school will affect the market value of the housing that is in the school, further incentivizing those who can to move elsewhere. All of this works together to put schools in zones that become more and more economically isolated. If you want to stick with the power plant substation analogy you have to imagine substations with vastly different capabilities, and whole school zones where there are regular brownouts and blackouts and service interruptions, not because of any malfunction, but because of basic structural differences that result from the geography that they sit in. And you have to imagine that those substations become progressively less powerful as time goes on. Grant Wood school’s population was at around 40% FRL in 2008. Its now at 79%.

The other comment that caught my eye that I wanted to respond to was posted by the ever-busy-on-the-internets Anonymous.  Anonymous seems to be better acquainted with ICCSD politics and to have firm opinions about them that I think are completely wrong.

“The latest cease and desist order for Diversity Policy shouldn’t shock anyone considering the Iowa Dept of Agriculture and USDA told the school district that the policy would violate federal law back in March 2014. Murley and the board chose to ignore those warnings and continue on their path which unfortunately wasted time and resources. I agree completely with Josiah’s comments. Schools should be redistricted based on population density and growth only with students attending schools closest to their homes and provide additional resources to those schools that need them. Balancing socioeconomic status is theoretically a very noble goal but would be very difficult if not impossible to implement as a long term solution for many reasons.”

My response:
contra Anonymous above, there are a couple of reasons why it’s very hard to solve this problem with “more resources.” One is that it takes a tremendous amount of resources, specifically in the form of classroom teachers, to make a difference in a school with a high concentration of poverty, and those resources are at a premium in this district right now. We have fairly high class sizes right now, and just instituted awful budget cuts across the district. If you put the teachers required into the schools that need it, then class sizes are going to grow to an alarming degree in the more affluent schools. I’m skeptical that this will even be pursued with the necessary vigor, given that parents in the more affluent schools have the time and energy and social capital to become squeaky wheels in ways that this district has generally responded to, and in ways that most parents in the high poverty schools don’t. In any case, redistricting to achieve demographic balance is actually a lot less expensive than putting enough resources into these schools to actually make a difference. [Edit: Michael Tilley has looked at this issue in more detail and done some work comparing the cost of extra bus routes, often cited by opponents as the prohibitive cost in redistricting, vs the cost of making class sizes in these schools effectively small.]

The other problem with trying to solve this problem with additional resources is that its, as Josiah termed redistricting, a hack. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem that creates the disparities and the inefficiencies. It doesn’t do much to break the cycle that leads to some zones becoming increasingly economically isolated. And, because of this, that commitment of resources has to be ongoing, delivered year after year. This is not only expensive, it puts the district in the position of institutionalizing these disparities.

So, looking more thoroughly at this, balancing the socioeconomic demographics of the schools isn’t just a noble goal, its a less expensive and more sustainable way to fulfill a public school system’s basic commitment to deliver the same educational opportunities to every kid, regardless of their wealth or race or address.

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To be clear, I mean this more as a defense of the large principle of seeking to create balanced school demographics than as an absolute defense of every word of the ICCSD’s Diversity Policy as written.  When we get down to the level of the implementing policies designed to do that, it becomes more complex.  There were problems in each of the maps that did seem to stem from attempts to meet the policy’s hard numerical targets, and even then those targets weren’t met.  Its hard to parse how much of this is the fault of the Policy directives, how much depended on the interpretation of the policy directives by the Superintendent and administrative team, and how much was the effect of public outcry on that interpretation.  As the policy is suspended, and as its core metric looks to be unusable, my main interest here is keeping the principled and practical advantages of working towards balanced schools front and center.

There are a couple of points that came up in the discussion on Michael’s blog are related closely enough that I want to say something about them in closing. Each is worthy of its own post and I hope to put those together soon.  One is the topic of incentivized movement versus reassignment when seeking balanced demographics.  My quick take is that there are definite advantages to achieving balance through incentives like magnet schools.  Educational solutions always benefit from community buy-in, and I am glad to see the ICCSD exploring these options.  At the same time, I think that a school system has to retain the right to change boundaries in pursuit of this end, as school zones and informal neighborhood boundaries tend to become co-identified over time, leading to economically isolated school zones via the process I outlined above.  Perhaps if we make smaller changes more often we won’t have to contemplate such large scale ones, and we won’t be so prone as a community to see any reassignment as a prohibitive disruption?

The other topic, one raised by Anonymous in the post above, is the question of whether the ICCSD should have abandoned the Diversity Policy earlier because of questions about the use of Free and Reduced Lunch numbers as a metric.  I’ll definitely have more to say later, but my short take is that this is 20/20 hindsight in action and that the case against using FRL was never as open and shut as critics are now claiming it was.  There are quite a few school districts both in Iowa and in other states who use FRL data in exactly the same way that the ICCSD attempted to do, and who haven;’t received cease-and-desist letters from the USDA.  And, in fact, FRL data is one of the metrics that the Iowa Department of Education lists as approved for just such a use.  It looks to me that we have a conflict-between-agencies situation at both the state and federal levels that cries out for adjudication.  In the meantime, I applaud the efforts by members of the ICCSD Policy and Governance Committee to find a way forward.