- We’re drawing districts for schools three and a half years before those schools are scheduled to open.
- We’re using enrollment projections that were done almost five years before those schools are scheduled to open.
- The 2017 school board election will occur two years before the new districts will take effect. That means that any redistricting decision we make will be subject to change by the next board, which could have as many as three new members.
- We’re drawing a district for a school (Grant Elementary) that we don’t even know if we’ll have the funding to build. The funding for Grant is part of a planned $100+ million bond proposal that will go to the voters in 2017. If the bond doesn’t pass (and if the state doesn’t bail us out by extending our SAVE funding in the meantime), any redistricting we do will have to be redone after the 2017 election. This is an issue beyond just Grant, as our redistricting is also taking into consideration the planned bond-funded additions at other schools such as Garner and Lemme.
- Proceeding on schedule almost certainly means using traditional attendance zones. Yet there has been a lot of discussion about the possibility of developing a plan to reduce the concentration in any one school of students with high levels of need. (For this purpose, the district uses, as a proxy for high need, the number of students who are receiving free or reduced-price lunch, who are English-language learners, or who are receiving special ed services.) To significantly reduce those concentrations using traditional attendance zones would require very substantial changes in boundaries and possibly additional busing expenses.
I have been trying to read up on some of the social science literature on efforts to diversify schools by socioeconomic class. I hope to post in more detail about that literature at some point. One aspect of that literature is that it focuses largely on incentive-based ideas (such as magnet schools) or other systems that give parents some degree of choice in the selection of schools—as opposed to mandatory assignment to schools through traditional attendance zones. (“[T]oday’s integration relies on public school choice, magnet schools, and incentives, rather than compulsion,” writes Richard Kahlenberg.)
I don’t think we can consider a system like that if we have to act in the next eight weeks; there is just not enough time to develop and evaluate one. (Yes, the district did a magnet school study, but it would still be a tall order to turn that into a concrete plan that could win board approval in the next eight weeks.) So by settling the 2019 boundaries now, we might be short-circuiting the discussion of choice-based arrangements, or we might be moving forward with an approach that the next board will reject. Holding off on the decision, on the other hand, would give advocates more time to develop those ideas, to build support for them in the community, and to advocate for particular board candidates.
Would there be drawbacks to waiting? Yes. For one thing, we just solicited community input and received feedback from people in sixty neighborhoods. That feedback wouldn’t suddenly become invalid if we waited, but we certainly raised an expectation that we’d move forward. And I’m sure some people would prefer to have closure sooner rather than later (though, again, anything we do would be subject to change by the next board).
There is also the issue of the effect on secondary school assignments. Our current secondary feeder plan—which has to go into effect by 2017, when we’re opening a new high school—doesn’t actually draw secondary boundaries; it just assigns certain elementary school areas to particular secondary schools. Under that kind of feeder plan, it makes sense to settle the elementary boundaries before the new high school opens. (See this long, boring post.)
I have my doubts about some aspects of the feeder plan, but I’ve been arguing that we should revisit it only after we’ve settled elementary boundaries. If we were to delay the elementary redistricting, though, we would have to go ahead and settle who’s going to go to which secondary schools in 2017. And we might have to do it by actually drawing secondary boundaries.
For example, under our current feeder plan, the land right across the street from Liberty High is in the Wickham Elementary zone—and thus would attend West High. The assumption has always been that that land will become part of the Grant Elementary zone, and thus end up (sensibly) at Liberty. If we postpone drawing the elementary boundaries, it would still make sense to determine that a portion of the Wickham zone should attend Liberty when it opens. We could go ahead and decide that now. If that line becomes the southern boundary of the Grant zone in 2019, fine; or, if necessary, the board can adjust it when it eventually draws the Grant zone.
Regardless of what we do with 2019 attendance zones, it makes sense to look for shorter-term ways to address some of the challenges faced by schools that have a lot of kids with high levels of need. The district has begun to implement a weighted resource allocation plan that is a step in that direction. In particular, I’d like to see if we could reduce class sizes at high-need schools (which means, yes, at the expense of class sizes elsewhere). If that has the added effect of pulling kids from other areas into those schools through voluntary transfers, that would be good to know. I hope I can discuss that more in a future post.
Please note: All of this is just thinking out loud. It takes time to think through all the implications of pursuing one course rather than another in such a complex enterprise (which is my only excuse for not anticipating some of these issues sooner). I’m still thinking them through, and I suspect other board members are, too. Maybe the board will decide that going forward now makes sense. Maybe some other Eureka moment is just around the corner. As our board chair says, we need to go through a phase of diverging before we can start to converge. Better to get these concerns talked out than to regret not raising them afterward.
Let me know what you think in the comments.