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.


Hot Potato!

As always seems to happen, I thought I had time to develop some extended thoughts on something, and then all at once, little components of that something start sparking issues that I want to comment on.  In this case, the extended thought is about the multipronged strategy that the ICCSD BoE adopted in September to try to address Diversity Policy goals, and the new maps for the schools surrounding Archibald Alexander that are associated with that approach.

One prong of this strategy is a letter sent to the Municipalities within the ICCSD, asking each and the County to “codify policies regarding inclusionary zoning, re-invest in areas of our community where there is socio-economic isolation, and place restrictions and rental units and rental density.”  I’d like to eventually discuss the promises and pitfalls of this tactic in general, but that’ll have to wait.  The letter’s been sent, and according to this report in the Press-Citizen, was discussed at the Joint Governance Board on Monday.  And there, Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, the most helpful member of the RGB quoted, offers a comment that’s deeply ironic in light of the Board’s approval of a map that makes almost no changes in the economic demographics in the schools in the Southernmost tip of the ICCSD:

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said from his city’s perspective, housing is a regional issue that requires a regional approach. But he said such a discussion will be a lengthy one, and he hopes it doesn’t distract from the importance of the district implementing the diversity policy in the meantime.

“I don’t know if our children can wait that long,” Hayek said.

So, it comes down to this.  The district says “We can’t implement the Diversity Policy until the municipalities make some changes to housing policy, so, we’ll go ahead and approve this map, which makes every school south of Kirkwood Avenue a high-poverty school for the next 5 years, and we’ll send them a letter.  And, in response, the executive from the most immediately helpful municipality says “Well, that’s great, but it will probably take us a while to do anything about it, so I sure hope you all move forward with implementing the Diversity Policy instead of waiting on us!

Really.  Its like a big game of Hot Potato! but with the education of our poorest kids in our poorest schools at stake.

ICCSD Letter to the Municipalities

There are probably simpler ways to do this, but in future columns I am going to need an online linkable reference to this letter, which the ICCSD sent to the associated municipalities that are included in it.  So I’m posting it’s text here, without comment, although I did clean up the typo.
Matt Hayek, Mayor of Iowa City
Gerry Kuhl, Mayor of North Liberty
Tim Kemp, Mayor of Hills
John Lundell, Mayor of Coralville
Louise From, Mayor of University Heights
Terrence Neuzil, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors

Dear Elected Officials:

We are writing today on behalf of the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors. At the September 9, 201 Board Meeting, the Board of Directors voted to direct the District to contact the municipalities served by the Iowa City Community School District regarding the housing patterns and city and county housing regulations that impact the District. Specifically, the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors would respectfully ask that each municipality and the county codify policies regarding inclusionary zoning, re-invest in areas of our community where there is socio-economic isolation, and place restrictions and rental units and rental density.

We understand that the main responsibility of the school system is to educate all children living within our community. We also understand that it is our local municipal governments’ responsibility to manage residential growth. While we are cognizant of the fact that it is not within the scope of the District’s duties to instruct municipalities on housing patterns and zoning regulations, we do know that these decisions have a direct impact on our educational system. Too often, the District is left trying to navigate a contradictory set of zoning regulations in an attempt to best plan for educating the students of one district who reside in six different municipal communities.

We are reaching out in hopes we can address the zoning and housing discrepancies in our community from a collective standpoint and can work together toward a unified solution. The District believes that there is the potential for a better approach that provides greater eneit to our entire community and specifically to our students.

Change of this magnitude will not take place overnight. As a first step, the District requests that each community codify inclusionary zoning in municipal planning. The District would suggest that the municipalities then formulate a joint task force to consider the needs of the community. The District is enthusiastic about being a part of this solution. We look forward to hearing about your work in this area and appreciate your collaboration as we work to educate the students of our community.

Chris Lynch
Board President

Steve F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools


Just a thought coming out of Thursday night’s cluster meeting: We don’t own our schools.

Since some time during the last School Board Election Cycle, I’ve been worried about the widespread and sometimes uncritical use of the term “neighborhood schools,” because it has so many meanings, and some of them lead back to the phrase’s origins and uses as a term of art in anti-integration politics. That’s a whole post in itself that I won’t get into here. But I will say this: local activist Sara Barron, who I’ve both agreed and disagreed with on various points, including the ICCSD Diversity Policy, and who uses the term, said something really valuable about those differences in meaning yesterday.

“I see strong benefits to having schools located in neighborhoods, and continuing our investment in these schools as our community grows. I am less convinced by the concept of a “neighborhood” as defined by a school. Get half a mile away from a school in any direction and this becomes, to me, an arbitrary distinction. I would say after the South elementary is built, I will have three elementary schools in my neighborhood: South, Twain, and Wood.”

For me, living I think just a little farther North than Sara, my neighborhood schools are Wood, Twain, and Longfellow. This is inexact, as is anything surrounding the term “neighborhood,” but I think its a useful and inclusive way to think about things. Because if you decide that a neighborhood and a single’ school’s attendance zone are always and essentially co-terminus, then any change to the attendance zone is necessarily understood as a disruption of the neighborhood. And that point you’ve just handed over your school’s demographics to the gentle hands of the real estate market. And we all know, or should know, what kind of work those hands have done for the causes of integration, fairness, and inclusion.

Based on my experience Thursday night, some people disagree with the notion that Wood, Twain, and Longfellow are my neighborhood schools, because one of those schools is their neighborhood school, in the singular sense. They fear (wrongly I believe) that a change to its border will destroy their neighborhood, and interfere with their plans to improve the neighborhood via the UniverCity program.

I believe those fears are misplaced, and that they’re unfortunate, since they play on and amplify old fears about one of my neighborhood schools. And what I want to suggest to the people laying out those fears and concerns on flyers and in public forums is this:

This is a public school system. We don’t own our schools. We are stewards, and we pass them on to the next set of parents and children. And if we’re good stewards, we pass them on better than they were when we came to them. And, I believe that stewardship needs to be done with the understanding that they all do better as a deeply connected and balanced set of points on a larger network, not as little enclaves with guarded and tightly patrolled borders.  Yes, we should use our schools and what they offer to improve our immediate neighborhoods. But not at the expense of other schools and other neighborhoods and the network of schools, and the community that network sits in and helps create. Because your school, just like my school, is in someone else’s neighborhood too.

*Edit 4/26/14 for clarity, tone, links.
*Edit 4/27/14 with more links, and more specific details.