Open Letter to the Core 4

There’s a city council election in Iowa City tomorrow.  A group of progressive candidates (tho that’s a disputed term in this election) are running as a loosely aligned group.  I generally favor them, but am also interested in Scott McDonough, an affordable housing advocate who is also in the race.  In any case, I sent this letter to the Core 4 candidates campaigns today:

Jim, Rockne, John, and Pauline

Hi All

I realize this the day before Election Day, and I can’t imagine that any of you will have much time to read this.  But I feel like its important, and I do hope you find the time.

I’ve been a strong supporter of the “Core 4” because of pressing social justice issues. And I remain so, but I was dismayed to see some of your responses to the questionnaire circulated by the Save Hoover group. Given the timing here, I’m not writing to try to necessarily change your minds on this issue.  I do hope that you will consider that, while closing Hoover may not be in itself good for Iowa City, neither are large class sizes, crowded buildings in need of repair, continued bussing in from the outer East side of Iowa City, or affluent migration towards the other two high schools in the District.  I’d also ask you to consider the interdependent nature of the Facilities Master Plan which Jim alluded to in his answer, and the promise it holds for schools across the District. And, while it’s tempting to look at this and say that there must be some way to solve these problems and not close a school, please don’t assume that this effort hasn’t been made, or that this was an easy solution.  I encourage you to investigate the process yourselves.  Having spent some time looking into it myself, I’d be happy to talk to any of you more about it after the election.

Really though, I’m not writing to talk so much about Hoover.  As Rockne says, we can work together through particular disagreements when we share common values.  I’m writing about an issue where School District and City politics are much more closely intertwined.  Currently, the vast majority of our poor students, and the vast majority of our students of color (an overlapping Venn diagram) attend just 5 of our district’s 20 elementary schools. In those 5 schools (Alexander, Twain, Wood, Hills, Kirkwood) upwards of 70% of the families qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch programs.  At other schools in the district that number ranges from the single digits up to around the upper 40s.  Besides those 5, only a couple are higher than the district average, around 36%.

These disparities have important consequences.  Poverty imposes barriers on students’ ability to learn and achieve in school, and schools with high concentrations of poverty concentrate those barriers.  High poverty schools require more effort on the part of teachers.  High poverty schools are less likely to host parents with the political capital or spare time to organize to support their schools, or to participate as fully in their PTOs and PTAs. While some of this can be addressed with funding, the allocation of resources away from low poverty schools and towards high poverty schools is, to say the least, politically tenuous.

The De Facto segregation of our schools reflects and effects the continued De Facto segregation of our neighborhoods. The two exist in a kind of reflexive relationship.  As poverty grows in a school, affluent parents seek other schools, and other neighborhoods.  Even in liberal Iowa City, white flight away from schools and neighborhoods dominated by racial minorities is a real, and shameful thing.  School zone borders become neighborhood borders, demarcating cultural, economic, and social barriers. As Iowa City grows, it is important to do what we can to keep these disparate geographies from solidifying. At the same time, we have to be careful as simply economically improving a neighborhood can drive current residents out.  Much of my enthusiasm for the Core 4 is based on support for higher minimum wage and for inclusionary housing policies, which would go a long way towards alleviating the city’s contribution towards these problems.

My frustration with much of the dialogue surrounding progressive ideas of growth and planning in Iowa City, is that it rarely seems to face these issues of race and class head on, as they need to be faced.  I’ve been presently surprised by willingness of members of the Core 4 and some of their allies to break from this pattern.  I hope it continues. Unlike Save Hoover, there is no political PAC raising money to support politicians friendly to this cause.  There is no unified group of upper-middle class parents circulating petitions to help make our schools racially and economically integrated. Nonetheless, I ask you to treat it just as seriously as you do the preservation of a school building in a middle class neighborhood.  I hope that you will also consider that reflexive relationship I alluded to earlier: integrated schools help to integrate neighborhoods.  Integrated neighborhoods are essential for long-term, sustainable, healthy growth. As difficult as these problems seem to be to address now, they will only get worse if we don’t.  Whether you are elected tomorrow or not, I urge each of you to think about this issue and ask for your help in addressing them in the future.