Busing, Neighborhood Schools, and Quotas: Anti-Integration Rhetoric Making a Comeback in the ICCSD

As always, events continue apace with little or no consideration of whether or not I have time to right about them. I’ve been meaning to do a comprehensive post about the ICCSD School Board’s struggle with secondary boundaries, but matters pertaining to that keep coming up while that post is still under construction.

In a nutshell: last year, the Board set a secondary boundary plan in place that created a relative demographic balance of wealth, English Language Learner status, and special education status between all three comprehensive secondary schools in the district. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, (more on that later) but it was based on an extensive community input process and much board deliberation, and measures were put in place to ease the burdens of some low income students.  This May, a group of four board members approved a series of motions overturning key parts of that boundary plan, essentially creating a new set of secondary boundaries mid-meeting, while asking the superintendent for on-the-spot calculations regarding the demographic outcomes.  Unsurprisingly, this plan greatly increases the wealth and race-based disparities between the secondary schools in the district.

One of those four board members, Phil Hemingway, has a Letter to the Editor in today’s Daily Iowan.  It doesn’t specifically address the secondary boundary plan by name, but, the board is deadlocked 3-3 on this plan until next week’s Special Election, and the major point of contention in that deadlock is the question of whether two high-poverty schools (Alexander and Kirkwood) should feed into high schools slightly farther than those closest to them. Given this, its hard to see it as anything but a comment on that matter.

There’s really a lot in Phil’s letter that needs disputing, from the conflation of boundary changes for integration as busing, to the overstating of the costs of busing, to the implicit claim that sending extra resources into high poverty schools is as effective and as cost-effective as integrating them.  But what really sticks out to me on first reading is Phil’s use of language.  What’s below started out as a comment on the article itself online.  I’m adapting it here to include some references and to make it more cohesive.

Phil Hemingway’s use of words like “busing,” neighborhood schools” and “quotas is pure Nixonism.  A recent article in slate delves into how “controversies over “forced busing” [have] allowed racist school policies to persist in the north.” The term “neighborhood schools” itself was originally coined and popularized rhetorically in the fight against school integration, as a kinder, gentler way of saying “segregated schools.”  Phil’s reference to “quotas” is similarly drawn from the struggle to resist affirmative action. Iowa City liberals and progressives should have enough sense of history to do more than smile and nod when Phil says stuff like this.
It’s also worth noting that, per my nutshell explanation earlier, what the Board is currently at a standstill on is secondary boundaries. Its impossible for any one of the 3 high schools or 3 junior highs in the district to be a “neighborhood school” for anything but the tiniest minority of students whose families are lucky enough to own property very close to the school. Phil’s support of boundaries that increase the disparities between secondary schools has nothing to do with “neighborhood schools.”
The weighted resource model that Phil favors in his letter is a good partial solution. But not only does it perpetuate segregation in the long run if its used as the only solution, its simply not practical or politically sustainable in the long run. Making the class sizes small enough to do any good in high poverty schools depends on having enough available classrooms, which is not always the case. And, because we have to use state-allocated money to pay teachers, we can only make those classes so small, and in doing so, the class sizes in affluent schools will go up. As an outcome, that’s fine. But its highly unlikely to be politically sustainable, as parents in those affluent schools have more time and money to organize and advocate for their schools than parents in high poverty schools.
As a board member and a longtime school finance watchdog, Phil Hemingway should understand the mechanics and the politics of school funding well enough to see the flaws in such an approach.  As a community, we should have a deep enough sense of history to hear what’s going on in the rhetoric that he is using and reject it.  I wish I was more confident that either of these things was likely to happen.

Please vote Paul Roesler on (or before) July 19th

Readers, please vote for Paul Roesler in the July 19th Special election for School Board. I first met Paul because he is married to a teacher at my child’s school. I’ve gotten to know him better because his thoughtful, urgent attention to the matters in front of the board has made him a constant presence at board meetings, listening posts, work sessions, and community events over the past several years. Paul has a deep knowledge and understanding of where we are as a district, and a holistic concern for the welfare of our entire community. There are urgent matters in front of the board that will shape our district’s future for good or for ill. Please vote Paul, for all our kids.

The school board is at crossroads right now, divided on key issues that will shape the the ICCSD in deep, structural ways. Many of my friends know one of Paul’s opponents, JP Claussen. I understand that JP is a good guy, who has done good work in our community. I have great respect for that. But I worry that the policies that he’s endorsed  will deepen the disparities between our schools, not because he wants to those disparities to deepen, but because he’s rejected the evidence–both from decades of educational scholarship and from data collected right here in our district–which tells us where those policies will lead and the harms that they will cause.

Decisions made by the board in just a couple of important matters now  will affect the educational lives of literally tens of thousands of students over the next few years. Those decisions need to be made on the basis of carefully considered evidence, not anecdotes. Paul understands the daily challenges that teachers and kids face, and he understands that the District’s structures and systems can either lessen or deepen those challenges.

I’ll be posting pretty heavily here over the next week, going into specific details about the policies and matters I’m speaking to generally above. right now though, I am asking you to base your vote on the candidates knowledge of and positions on questions that the board faces right now, not personal loyalty and good works done in other venues. Its important.

It’s On Us.

I reactivated this blog to write about the current happenings in the ICCSD.  There’s lots to write about there, but all I can think about this morning are the senseless police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and the unimaginable sadness and anger that’s been brought down on their loved ones.  Are we even trying, America?

Both killings are on video.  I’m not going to put those videos up here.  I don’t have words to address this, like I’d like to.  But I have to say this: this happens, white people, because we let it happen.  Because we complain about property damage to neighborhoods we wouldn’t be caught dead in, when black outrage over injustice boils over.  Because we post the arrest records of people who’ve been shot by police, and the swim times of young white men who rape. Because we elect politicians who bleed our municipal coffers so dry that traffic tickets are a major source of income for many municipalities, and because driving while black is good enough for a stop by an armed, anxious, angry officer of the law. Because we accept the insane notion that of course he charged at the police from 20 feet away even with their guns drawn.  Because we believe even for a second that he was going for his gun after being told to get out his ID. Because in the back of our minds, black men are superpredators. Because we don’t care enough to stop it, we let it happen.  It’s on us.

#Altonsterling #Philandocastille #nomorehashtags


This is more of a hot-take than I usually like to do here, but well, I’m pretty hot about this.  The ICCSD BoE Education Committee last night voted not to ask the full board to implement the Weighted Resource Allocation Model for the upcoming school year.  The WRAM would allocate more teachers (leading to lower class sizes) and other resources to high poverty schools.  Smaller classes are one of the few resource allocations that have been found to consistently increase achievement for poor and minority students.  In a year when class sizes are going to go up all over, because of inadequate state funding, its utterly crucial that poor students, students who don’t have the myriad advantages of those who come from middle class and affluent families not be asked to take the brunt of the impact. And its utterly cowardly to not even have the full board consider this.

For years, as some of us have struggled to integrate school attendance zones in the ICCSD and reduce the tremendous disparities in wealth between zones, the counter-reply has been “no, don’t change any boundaries, just move more resources.”  In this regard, using the WRAM to allocate more teachers to high poverty schools is critical in two regards.  One is that it provides immediate relief, giving the kids in high-poverty schools a fair shake while the deadlock over integration continues.  And, because the zero-sum game of Iowa education funding means that this would lead to larger classes in more affluent schools, it imposes a cost on the continued failure to integrate.  Not a cost on the students, as the effect of larger classes on middle class and affluent students has been found to be minimal, but a cost on the middle class parents who will be horrified at the notion that doing something about the race and class-based achievement gap in a public school system might require them to put some skin in the game. We’ve had a lot of talk about “moving resources and not students” in this district.  Lets see what the walk looks like.

So, in the last few weeks, a significant portion of this board’s membership has:

*started working to undo secondary boundaries that were set expressly to provide demographic balance between the (soon to be 3) high schools.

*Refused to work on elementary boundaries that were slated to be considered, and which would provide opportunities to redress long-standing disparities.

*Refused to let the WRAM go forward for consideration by the full board for the 2016-2017 school year.

I should acknowledge that there is some complexity behind these details, but overall this is an unconscionable failure.  Members of this board seem paralyzed in the face of any decision that might be controversial at all, arguing that it could be overturned by a future board, or that it could endanger the upcoming GO Bond vote.  I’d argue, and will later at length, that refusing to make solid plans, refusing to direct the district towards an integrated and sustainable future, and refusing to address long-standing disparities that endanger educational equity for poor and minority students is the real recipe for failure.  And that’s what we have cooking now.

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.

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.


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.