Non-Solutions: The May 10 Boundary Adjustments don’t solve the problems that Claussen, Liebig, Hemingway, and Roetlin claim they do.

One of the questions at the heart of the special school board election is the question of secondary boundaries that the current 6-member board is deadlocked on. Paul Roesler and Janice Weiner favor the boundaries adopted last year after lengthy community input.  These boundaries create something close to a demographic balance by class, and a less-dramatic balance by race, between all three comprehensive high schools in the district.
Candidate JP Claussen favors the adjustments made mid-meeting on a 4-3 vote on May 10th of this year. (It was after this vote that Director Tom Yates, whose campaign Claussen had managed, suddenly left the board, forcing the district to undertake a costly special election.)  Those boundaries would have Liberty High opening as an overwhelmingly white and affluent school, in comparison to the other two schools.

The previous plan created this rough balance by sending two of our highest poverty schools (Kirkwood and Alexander) and two of our lowest poverty schools (Wickham and Lincoln) to secondary feeders that are slightly more distant than their nearest school. Claussen (and current directors Liebig, Hemingway, and Roetlin) argue that we shouldn’t do this because the distance creates an undue burden on those Kirkwood and Alexander families, based on complaints from an unknown number of parents at those schools.  While I would always urge us to listen to the voices of parents at high poverty schools, like the one my child attends, I don’t think that these objections should determine the policy here, and I want to lay out some reasons why.

One thing that I want to make explicit is that the points below about the May 10th changes should be read in dialog with the premise that socioeconomic and racial integration has distinct benefits for every student in the district. There is much research supporting this. So, the arguments below aren’t just criticisms of the May 10 changers, they are arguments that the supposed benefits of those changes are poor trade-offs for the loss of such a benefit.

1. The issue of inadequate transportation to school is serious, and distance is an unfair burden on these families, but the changes made on May 10th don’t actually do anything meaningful to reduce that burden. Both schools are outside of comfortable walking distance to their closest feeders. Families in both zones would be bus-dependent under both scenarios.  Shortening their bus ride by 5 minutes won’t change that.  And in fact, since some of the families in question live within the 3-mile automatic busing radius of their closest feeders, sending them to one slightly farther away guarantees them busing to school that they might not otherwise have.

I want to stop here and do a double take, because it might be the most important of the points I want to make: while distance does create a real burden on families without reliable transportation, the supposed solution here does not actually ease that burden in a significant way, and in fact will increase it in some cases.

2. Regarding Kirkwood, specifically, the argument has been made that there’s no public transportation in North Liberty, where Liberty High is located.  This is true, but I think its significance is vastly overstated.  Taking public transportation to West from the Kirkwood area requires riding a bus to downtown Iowa City and then taking another bus from there to West High.  I suppose that, as long as its possible that this could happen, its wrong to absolutely say that it doesn’t.  But, former Northwest Junior High principal (and current West High principal) Gregg Shoutz has stated in public meetings that its not a resource that Kirkwood families draw upon with any regularity. Moreover, it seems much preferable to me that we demand that North Liberty create a public transportation system–something that would benefit its residents in many ways–instead of demanding that we compromise the educational opportunities of many students in the district.

3. Repeatedly in public statements JP Claussen and directors Liebig, Roetlin, and Hemingway have argued that they represent the interests of Kirkwood and Alexander parents as a whole, or that they represent the families that attend those schools with the least access to transportation.  The first claim is untrue, as neither school’s population is entirely unified on the question, and the second is unverifiable.  In fact, we don’t really, in the public arena, have any hard information about what percentage of the population of each school is making these complaints.  Some kind of quantification here would be helpful in determining what is or isn’t at stake in this trade off.

4. While the distances between these elementary zones and their high school destinations don’t differ much between the two plans, the distances to the Junior Highs are a concern.  This is particularly true of Kirkwood, which sits literally right next to Northwest Junior High, West’s feeder, but is a good distance from North Central, which feeds to Liberty.  Because of this, the original boundaries allowed Kirkwood students to choose which Junior High they would attend.  I think that similar modifications for Alexander, and perhaps for another feeder that would split between city and liberty, would make this set up less unique and make the entire plan more palatable, while still maintaining overall demographic balance at the high school level.

5. Advocates for the May 10 boundaries have repeatedly argued that low income students will be barred from participating in extracurricular activities under the previous boundaries.  They fail to notice that Hills is more distant from City and West than either of these schools are from their previous destinations, but has been assigned at different times to both City and West.  There have been no reports of Hills students being barred from extracurricular participation to my knowledge.

6. Advocates for the May 10 boundaries are fond of saying that it achieves demographic balance “at the expense of poor people” or asking when we will bus affluent kids to distant schools.  In doing so, they neglect the fact that Wickham and Lincoln were bused to more distant schools under the those borders, and that the May 10th changes threaten our ability to maintain that, by creating crowding at City and West and in their associated Junior Highs.

7. JP Claussen has argued that, rather than trying to create balanced attendance zones we should achieve demographic balance on the secondary level by  making each high school a kind of magnet, with specialized curricula, and allowing a greater degree of parental choice.  This actually deserves to be unpacked more fully, and I intend to do that, but here I want to note one of the problems with such an effort: it would require busing on a much larger and much more expensive scale than anything contemplated previously, and families without dependable transportation would be faced with much more dramatic distances to school than anything contemplated in last year’s borders.  Imagine that you’re in the Twain zone, and Liberty is a stem-focused campus and you wish to attend.  How much does it cost to make sure every kid like that has busing to the school of their choice?  What are the options for a family like that if they miss the bus?

In general, this last point underscores my worries about Claussen’s candidacy.  He has much enthusiasm for ideas that are noble and interesting, but seems unwilling to delve into the implications of specific policy proposals.  This is particularly problematic given that he would be the deciding vote on the question of secondary boundaries considered here.

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Author: Eric D. Johnson

I do American Studies (PhD University of Iowa 2012) scholarship, including but not limited to: Race and Genre in American Popular Music, Critical Southern Studies, and African American Memory and History in the Ozarks. I also write about educational policy and politics, focusing on integration and desegregation and the intersection of school and housing policies.

2 thoughts on “Non-Solutions: The May 10 Boundary Adjustments don’t solve the problems that Claussen, Liebig, Hemingway, and Roetlin claim they do.”

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