- The first thing I noticed about the article is that it says nothing about the primary objection raised to Director Lynch’s proposal: the busing of kids from two of our most high-poverty neighborhoods, Kirkwood and Alexander, to more distant schools for the sake of pursuing greater socioeconomic parity at the high schools. The article does not even try to persuade the reader that the plan’s benefits outweigh its burdens for Kirkwood and Alexander families. I take the article to be implying that whatever burdens those families have to bear are justified by the other benefits of the proposal, but I would have liked to hear the main counterargument to the proposal more explicitly addressed.
- Much of the article is arguing with a straw man: Director Lynch compares his favored proposal with a plan that would assign both Kirkwood and Alexander to West High. But in fact, neither side of this debate wants to leave both Kirkwood and Alexander assigned to West. The real alternative proposal is to assign Kirkwood to West and all or most of Alexander to City High. As a result, many of Director Lynch’s arguments falter. For example, he argues that his proposal—to remove Kirkwood from West—will keep West from becoming overcrowded, but the alternative proposal—removing Alexander from West—will also keep it from becoming overcrowded. Basically, West with Alexander looks a lot like West with Kirkwood, so it’s hard to distinguish the two proposals based on their effect on West.
- Director Lynch’s main argument is that his proposal is the only way to prevent “programming inequity” at the high schools. I’m not surprised at this focus. Despite all the talk about the need for diversity, much of this debate has been driven by a desire for uniformity in course offerings at the three high schools—which explains why the focus on “balance” has been exclusively at the secondary level, even though the socioeconomic disparities at the elementary level are far larger. (Many of the people arguing against having fifteen- or twenty-point FRL (rate of free- and reduced-price lunch) differences at the high schools were supportive of the board’s adoption of elementary boundaries that had FRL differences of over seventy percentage points.)
What are the programming differences that will result if we keep Kirkwood and Alexander at their nearest high schools? Director Lynch does not say. He says only that “Liberty will not have programming equity with City/West due to low/lower student enrollment.” But it has always been the plan for Liberty to start with lower enrollment, because its initial capacity will be lower. (It will be a 1000-seat school until 2022.) The district’s curricular goal for Liberty is to have at least 200 kids per class, with the understanding that juniors and seniors will not be required to attend in its initial year. On the high end, it would be unwise to have more than about 250 kids per class, since that would push the building over capacity as soon as there are four full classes there. Based on what we know about how many students are in the pipeline, keeping Kirkwood at West is the plan that puts Liberty at between 200 and 250 students per class in its initial years—thus meeting its curricular goals while avoiding overcrowding.
Director Lynch’s proposal, on the other hand, would result in enrollment at Liberty being significantly over capacity by 2019 (the first year it will have four full classes), even without considering likely population growth in the North Corridor. And the overcrowding would get much worse before Liberty gets its addition (scheduled for 2022).
- Director Lynch asserts that unless his proposal is adopted, “The barriers to learning will be 2-4 times higher at City/West than Liberty.” I had to stop and read that sentence multiple times, since at first I had no idea what it meant. I’m assuming that the article is equating the rate of free- and reduced-price lunch or English language instruction with a school having “higher barriers to learning.” This strikes me as an odd way to talk about the presence of poor kids or second-language English speakers in our schools. It is also inherently alarmist language; “4 times higher” may mean that one high school would have 8% of its kids in English-language instruction while another high school would have 2%—but it sounds scarier to say that “barriers to learning will be four times higher” at the former.
Certainly some kids do face greater barriers, but the article avoids any discussion of how those kids will be better off if they are bused to different schools. That would require a discussion of whether the likely FRL rate at any school is high enough to raise educational red flags, and whether the benefit of moving kids to a different, more distant school will outweigh the burdens. The article doesn’t attempt to make those arguments.
- Director Lynch suggests that only under his proposal can a bond be passed that will fund the remaining projects in the district’s facilities plan. It’s true that no one is under any obligation to vote for a bond, and some people may choose to express their unhappiness with the board’s policies by voting “no” on any bond. But this kind of argument is circular: everyone likes to think that their plan is the one the community likes best. Director Lynch says that the community and the board “collectively spent thousands of hours” developing his proposal, but in fact there was a great deal of opposition to busing-for-balance at the district’s listening posts. What’s especially noticeable about the argument on bond passage, though, is the absence of any acknowledgement that Kirkwood and Alexander residents will also play a role in whether a bond passes. In the discussion of bond passage, those voters don’t seem to exist.
- Director Lynch argues that “anything that looks like segregation” has “no place in the Iowa City Community School District.” There is no doubt that the housing patterns that make it harder to diversify some of our schools are the result of a history of discrimination. Whether our high schools need to have nearly equal socioeconomic profiles to avoid “looking like segregation,” however, is another question, especially if that goal requires treating low-income families worse than other families, by putting greater burdens on them and by being more willing to disregard their input. How best to improve the lives of kids from low-income families is a hard question that can’t be reduced to simply equalizing numbers—as Director Lynch has essentially acknowledged by supporting elementary boundaries that have enormous disparities in socioeconomic and racial diversity and that look much more like segregation than anything proposed at the high school level.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want socioeconomic balance at the secondary schools. Unfortunately, though, that balance cannot be achieved—at least not through traditional attendance zones—without busing hundreds of kids from low-income families every year to more distant schools. I remain unconvinced that those kids will be made better off through that kind of plan, and I do not see the likely socioeconomic differences at the high schools as being large enough to justify burdening those kids in that way.
Related posts here, here, and here.