Voting Against The Bond Is Not “Progressive” Part 1: Paul Street is wrong.

I’m sorry to see local writer and activist Paul Street join the small group of Iowa City progressives fronting for Republican causes in an effort to vote down the ICCSD GO Bond.  Like most in this same set, he appears to not have seriously engaged with school district issues in any serious or rigorous way up until now, and, once engaged, he seems to have done little digging into those issues.  Instead he’s settled his position into a general frame that posits that anything that could benefit a local developer in part must be a bad idea regardless of who else benefits from the bond passing, or bears the cost of it not passing.

I wish that we could simply hold an old-fashioned barn-raising to put up new schools or renovate old ones, but we can’t.  As long as we slouch along under capitalism, large scale public works projects will generate profits for developers. As such, this doesn’t make a very good sole ground for simply opposing them all, as they can also supply wage work for building and professional trades, improve working conditions for workers within them, and provide serious and longstanding benefit to the community at large and individuals within the community.  And this is particularly the case when those benefits are delivered free to all members of the community and are guaranteed to the most vulnerable among us.  This, all of this, is the case with the projects funded under the bond.

Because I’m pressed for time, I’m going to fill out the rest of this post out with comments I’ve made on social media refuting specific aspects of Mr. Street’s editorial.  I will say that Mr. Street seems to have his heart in the right place politically in many instances.  I hope that he will consider these points and look more deeply into this matter.

Regarding the overall framing, there are some serious problems as well. This 6-month timeline is something I mostly hear from people who have not been engaged in this process until very recently.

Suggesting that a new bond could go back up in 6 months assumes that the reasons for this one failing would be self-evident. But that’s not the case. Some bond opponents object on the basis of cost and want a smaller bond. Other bond opponents have complained about specific projects being left out and want to add those. Others just want the superintendent gone. Others object that their corner of the district isn’t receiving enough money or attention. Just as there is now significant disagreement about what our “highest priorities” are, there will be disagreements during the process of putting together a new bond. If the board and administration go about this rigorously and transparently, as such a process requires, it will take significant amounts of time and energy and community input.

And, as the brand-new board undertakes this process, investigates which of the contradictory demands they want the new bond to be most responsive to, then what happens to the other very important work that Mr. Street points out needs attention from the board and administration? If the bond is voted down it will be harder, not easier, to address those issues as the board and administration scramble to adjust the FMP timelines and rework the plan that the bond funds.

See other posts about the actual likely consequences of the bond being voted down from me, and from friend of the page Michael Tilley.

Regarding developers profiting: I’m more or less a socialist. The day that we can build schools and undertake other large scale public building programs without generating profit for any private entities would be a great day. But that’s not where we are now. But, there are better and worse ways to undertake projects like this under capitalism. This one has the support of developers and real estate interests, but is also has the support of the Teachers Union, the Building Trades union and, in fact, every other local labor group. Its pretty distasteful to see these advocates for working people dismissed as “elites.”

Of course what this piece elides is that there are plenty of elites quietly organized in opposition to this, as local Republicans are more than happy to let a few progressive Democrats front for them while they distribute signs and leaflets for the Vote No effort.

To take Mr. street’s points in order:

First: 1,500 extra seats sounds like a lot, until you consider that we’re talking about a district that now has 14,000 students in it right now, and which gains about 300 students per year. That’s 1,500 seats split up across 24 schools.

Second: It’s more than a little contradictory to, on the one hand, complain that the projects aren’t tied to specific dollar amounts and then, within a sentence, suggest that projects might not be completed due to cost overruns. The kind of uncertainty fearmongered here is exactly why it makes sense to allow the elected School Boards who will oversee this process some flexibility. The bond ties the funding to the plan. Every change in the FMP has been discussed in open meetings and voted on by an elected board. Everyproject in the FMP has been accomplished on time and at or under budget. Specifying dollar amounts would leave the plan much more vulnerable to cost overruns and would mean that, if a project were finished under budget, the money saved couldn’t be spent on a different project under the bond.

Third: Interesting to note that all of those “highest priority projects” are in one area of the District. Voters in Coralville and North Liberty might not agree that these are the highest priorities, especially since that list leaves a whole high school without any athletic facilities, leaves West High with incomplete HVAC, and more. Note also that Mr. Street doesn’t say why this is better, it just is. We live in a large district, with many different priorities and needs spread across a huge area. One of the hallmarks of the FMP is its ability to balance these competing priorities. If not for that, we would still be fighting over whether we should have a new high school or renovate our older schools.

Fourth: There is no closing of “existing core Iowa City neighborhood schools” happening. One such school in Iowa City, one that sits within a mile of 3 other elementary schools and sits on the grounds of a high school, is being closed. The other urban schools are being renovated and invested in. One of the new schools being built is serving a neighborhood that has been bussed in to another school for years. The other is in downtown North Liberty. This is not a case of subsidizing sprawl. I’d like to see more capacity and renovation in Hills, which Mr. Street refers to as “rural Southwest Iowa City”) as well, but its hard to reconcile that with Mr. Street’s urge above for the bond to become smaller. Would this be one of those “highest priority projects?”

Fifth: The FMP does not grant Steve Murley or any other administrator “vast powers.” However anyone feels about the administration, that’s just a bunch of scary talk. As Mr. Street noted himself above, changes in the FMP are made by vote of elected board members. We are 4 years and $155 million dollars into this process, and every project has been carried out as specified int he plan which even Mr. Street recognizes as being changed only by majority vote of the elected board. Certainly there are legitimate complaints to be made about a number of issues in the district. Mr Street identifies several that are crucial for the board and administration to take immediate and thoughtful action on.  Voting down the bond will do nothing to help that, and in fact will put severe impediments in the way of any effort to do so.

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.

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.

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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.