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.
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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.
To:
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.
Sincerely,

Chris Lynch
Board President

Steve F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools

Stewards

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.

Walkability, Integration, Misinformation

longfellow brochure

So, I’m hearing some unfortunate things flying around, based on the proposed changes to the Twain/Longfellow border here in East Iowa City. Some of it is word of mouth rumors, and some of it is printed on flyers distributed door-to-door by children in the Longfellow attendance zone. In advance of the Cluster Two meeting tomorrow night, I’d like to clear up some misinformation and provide some perspective and counter-information for any Longfellow parents who might read this, or really for anyone interested in the redistricting process underway in the ICCSD.

1. Contrary to rumors, Twain does have an ELP program, it’s quite an active one. Twain teachers also do a great job on differentiation in the classroom, providing challenging work for students that need it whether they’re in that program or not.

2. While the proposed change does mean that some families would travel farther to a new school, they distance they would travel is not greater than many families travel now to both Twain and Longfellow. If traveling that distance is in fact the hardship that the flyer claims, why is it ok for other families to make that trek now, but not for families affected by this change?

3. Similarly, the flyer greatly overstates the actual distance between Twain and Longfellow for rhetorical effect, in several places. Many homes within the proposed area are equidistant or nearly so from both schools. A small few are actually closer to Twain.

4. The flyer claims that there is no data available to support the idea that this change would increase socioeconomic diversity at Twain. This is not true. In fact, if you go to the ICCSD website and look at the proposed boundary changes map, and the FRL density map, the effect is clear.

5. The flyer claims that there are “certainly” ways that the goal of achieving economic diversity can be achieved without making this particular change. Yet, despite this certainty, no alternate plans are suggested. If this is the case, I will be happy to see people show up at the meeting on Thursday and propose their own changes, as long as those plans don’t require people less affluent than those in the affected zone to travel even farther, or change schools more than one time.

6. The suggestion in the flyer that families who currently own their homes in this area would rather sell and relocate than send their kids to Twain, thus “decimating” the UniverCity housing program, is both hyperbolic and, frankly, insulting. Please ask Twain parents about their experiences with Twain and its teachers before making such a claim.

7. The flyer claims that this change would undermine the Longfellow neighborhood, but conveniently defines “the Longfellow neighborhood” as Longfellow’s current attendance zone.

8. The flyer implicitly and in some places explicitly argues that “walkability” for those residents affected by the change, and for those lucky enough to live close to a school, is more important than socioeconomic diversity and the need to alleviate the barriers imposed by concentrations of poverty within any school. Is this really where our values lie as a community or as a neighborhood large enough that it contains both schools? Given the choice do we really value walkability for a few more than integration and opportunity for all?