Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Board chooses inequitable voluntary transfer plan that will create overcrowding

Two weeks ago, the school board majority voted to take two high-poverty areas and assign them to more distant secondary schools for the sake of achieving socioeconomic balance. Last night, that same majority supported liberally giving school choice throughout the district to families who have the means to provide their own transportation, regardless of its effect on socioeconomic balance.

The board also consciously chose to allow voluntary transfers into secondary schools even when the district knows that those transfers will worsen overcrowding in those buildings.

The plan that the board supported last night is outlined in this administrative proposal. The plan allows secondary-school transfers as long as they won’t push the receiving school’s enrollment over 95% of its future capacity, regardless of whether they overcrowd the building in the here and now. It allows transfers only if they don’t make enrollment at the departed-from school drop below a certain percentage of its capacity. Freshmen and sophomores will ordinarily not be allowed to transfer out of Liberty High in its opening year.

The plan would give the administration the discretion to permit exceptions to those rules on a case-by-case basis to students who could demonstrate that the boundary changes create a “hardship” for them. The board decided not (at least at this time) to adopt any criteria for what would count as such a hardship. (The longstanding policy of allowing health, safety, and security hardship transfers will continue.) Hardship transfers will not come with a bus, though, so they’ll do little good for anyone whose hardship is the transportation barriers created by the new boundaries.

In my view, setting the limit based on future capacity, rather than present capacity, makes no sense. For example, we have every reason to think that Liberty High’s enrollment will be well over its capacity by 2019-20. (This chart shows overcrowding just by projecting forward the number of students currently in the younger grades, and it does not account for likely growth in the North Corridor.) So if we allow freshmen and sophomores to transfer in to Liberty in 2017, we know that those students will put the building even further over capacity in 2019. But under the administrative plan, those transfers will be allowed, on the grounds that Liberty will someday have more seats—that is, in 2022, long after those particular students have graduated.

Similarly, the plan treats City High’s capacity as higher than it will actually be until it gets its addition five years from now. After months of trading arguments about how the boundary plan will affect overcrowding, the board seems to have decided that overcrowding isn’t so bad after all—at least when it accommodates families with means.

The plan makes a hash of the board’s rationale for its secondary boundary decision. The district will have succeeded in effectively taking school choice away from families who don’t have the means to get their kids to and from their preferred school, while providing it to everyone else. If you’re a well-off Manville or Shimek family who wants to transfer out of City and into Liberty—making the socioeconomic disparity between the schools worse—we’re fine with that. If you’re a well-off Wickham family who wants to transfer out of West into Liberty—making the socioeconomic disparity worse—we’re fine with that. But if you’re poor and have no choice but to rely on the school bus, you have to go to the more distant school, regardless of your judgment about what’s best for your child. And, by the way, if that school is Liberty, we hope you enjoy the overcrowding!

It’s harder and harder to see the board’s decisions as being driven by concern for kids from low-income families. I don’t know how we can look any Kirkwood or Alexander parent in the eye after these choices.


Chris said...

The plan prevents voluntary transfers if they make enrollment at the departed-from school drop below a particular percentage of its capacity. The lower bound is set at 80% of capacity through 2019, then drops to 75% of capacity for subsequent years. In my view, the board approved that proposal without sufficiently exploring its implications.

The rationale given for having a lower bound was to promote programming equity between the schools. But, for example, 80% of West High’s capacity is 1347. Depending on how many transfers out are approved before that year, West could possibly fall below that number in 2019-20. (This age-progression overstates how many current students are West-High-bound, because some of those students will actually end up at Tate Alternative High School, and because some West High students will have been allowed to transfer into Liberty in the preceding years.) So the rule could prevent West High students from transferring to Liberty that year. But how does preventing a student from transferring from West High (with enrollment at 1347) to Liberty High (with an even lower enrollment) promote programming equity? Again, there are good reasons not to allow transfers into Liberty in 2019, but programming equity isn’t one of them.

The rule could also prevent transfers from West to City in 2019. The following year, though, the lower bound drops to 75%, and so would probably no longer prevent transfers out of West. So at most the rule seems likely to stop transfers out for one year only, but not before or after that year.

Another school that could be affected by lower bound rule is Northwest Junior High. Eighty percent of Northwest’s capacity is 645. In 2017, the age progressions (admittedly a very imperfect substitute for real enrollment projections) show 712 junior high students in the Northwest zone. But many of them (Alexander-area students and Wickham-area eighth-graders) have the option to choose a different school regardless of capacity, which could push the enrollment below the 80% lower bound. On the other hand, Kirkwood-area students have the option to transfer in—so it’s very hard to know what the net effect will be. If Northwest does fall below 645, additional transfers out (for example, from Wickham-area seventh graders) would not be available that year, except via a hardship argument.

Other than those instances, it’s hard to see how the lower bound rule would ever be likely to come into play at all. My initial inclination is to think that the administration did not demonstrate a sufficient need for the rule, or for using 80% (and later 75%) as the cut-off, especially given the very limited number of situations in which it might possibly come into play. But I still don’t feel confident that I’ve assessed the full implications of the rule. Maybe readers will see something I’m missing?

Amy said...

And unfortunately the takeover and evisceration of the local newspaper by Gannett makes it even harder to make sure residents know what's going on. If it's about football or crime, no problem, but coverage of how the city and district runs has just been stabbed to death over there. (I hope you're reading, Katie, and that you're ashamed: the Daily Iowan does a better job with local news coverage, the job that's supposed to be a local newspaper's job.)

I hope you're talking to Little Village writers, because this is a story. Why does a self-advertisedly, even piously, egalitarian district that's already under fire for poor treatment of low-SES students go ahead and refuse to do anything but make poor families bear the burden of satisfying state FRL/diversity directives?

Thank you for continuing to stand up for families that need a board member standing up for them and speaking politely but loudly.

Anonymous said...

Egalitarian ha! This district went to the dark side years ago.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this column Chris.

The administration and board majority's decision looks like it was done to get bond votes--"FAQ: Why should you vote for a bond? Answer: we have all these temporaries in use [that wouldn't be necessary but for these types of decisions] and its not fair so vote yes."

Where are these capacity numbers coming from? They are too low. Even before the 6 classroom addition, City High had over 1600 students in the 90s and is educating more students now. So where does the 1293 future capacity number come from? West High has had over 1900 students since 2012. What would the capacity of the high schools be based on class sizes the district can afford to staff?

What's the plan if the bond fails?