As expected, the board voted tonight to reinstate the previous board’s secondary feeder plan, which would send Kirkwood-area students to Liberty High and Alexander-area students to West High. At the junior high level, Kirkwood will be assigned to North Central but students will be allowed to choose Northwest instead; Alexander will be assigned to Northwest but will be allowed to choose South East instead, though they will not receive a bus to South East. Board members LaTasha DeLoach, Brian Kirschling, Chris Lynch, and Paul Roesler voted for that plan; board members Phil Hemingway, Lori Roetlin, and I voted against it. My reasons for voting against it are stated more fully here, here, here, and here. Here are my comments on this issue at the meeting tonight:
Well, I think we all know how these votes are going to go, more or less. We had an election this summer in which this issue played a big role, and I’m happy to let the democratic process take its course and decide this issue. And we need decide it now and move forward.
That doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, though. Once upon a time I was elected too, and when I ran I said: “We should pay special attention to the needs of disadvantaged students and their families. In my view, those families are the best judges of what those needs are. We should seek out their advice and bring it to bear on district policy.”
I don’t think we’ve done that on this issue, and I don’t have any confidence that the kids in the Kirkwood and Alexander areas will be better off as a result of the board’s decisions tonight. I also think the board has its head in the sand about the capacity problems at Liberty that this decision will cause. It’s only a matter of time before someone suggests we move Van Allen back to West High because Liberty doesn’t have enough space—which would entail even more busing costs at the expense of class size.
I’m not a person who thinks there are no benefits from creating socioeconomically diverse environments in our schools when we can do that without creating hardships for families that are struggling economically. The strongest evidence for those benefits is at the elementary level, but I don’t doubt there are benefits to some degree at the secondary level as well.
But to me it’s a bad sign when many—not all, but many—of the people arguing that we need to diversify our high schools—including some of the people sitting up here—happen to live in elementary attendance areas that are very white, largely well off, with very low-free-and-reduced-price lunch (FRL) rates, but don’t seem to think we need to do anything at all about that, even though we have much, much larger socioeconomic disparities between our elementary schools than we do between our high schools. Many of those people didn’t object at all—or even expressed support—this past May when this board adopted elementary attendance areas that made those disparities even bigger.
There are things that we can do to create more socioeconomic balance in our elementary schools—things that wouldn’t even require more busing, which wouldn’t create the kind of burdens that these secondary boundaries will create, and which would probably even save the district money over time and help prevent outlier class sizes. For example, the paired schools concept, which could help lower the FRL concentrations we now have at schools like Twain and Mann by pairing them with lower-FRL schools. There are also boundary alterations we could make to even out FRLs without much disruption—for example, keeping the Breckenridge trailer court at Lemme, where they’ve gone for years, instead of redistricting them to Hoover East, and then moving the part of Lemme that’s east of Scott Boulevard to new Hoover instead.
Many of these relatively straightforward opportunities for elementary balance are on the east side of Iowa City, which, in the election, most strongly supported the candidate who argued for socioeconomic balance at the secondary level.
If the board goes ahead with a plan to bus kids from low-income families around to create balance at the secondary level, but shows no interest or urgency about the less burdensome, less costly ways of generating some balance at the elementary level, where it probably matters more, people will have every reason to think that this vote isn’t about diversity or equity, it’s about “Send those kids someplace else. Someplace other than the school where my kids go.”
And if we say, “those elementary changes are too controversial to talk about right before a bond vote, we should wait until a better time,” when we didn’t say that about busing Alexander and Kirkwood, that should bother us. Let’s put those topics on our agenda now.