USDA opinion on ICCSD policy offers new opportunities
With or without the blessing of federal assistance programs, the existing strategy for economic diversity in the Iowa City Community School District was going to fail.
Research — specifically a 2010 Century Foundation study of student placement in Montgomery County, Md. — provides evidence that a balanced socioeconomic playing field at neighborhood schools increases student achievement in ways targeted resources do not.
In the Montgomery County study, researchers followed 850 students living in public housing. Those who attended the most-advantaged schools performed significantly better than their peers in lesser-advantaged environments. This remained true even as additional resources were pumped into the lesser-advantaged schools like increased professional development, additional math and literacy instruction and reduced class sizes.
Montgomery County schools boast a 90 percent graduation rate, 33 percent overall participation in Advanced Placement courses and college entrance exam grades far above the national average.
Yet, even as this school district is held up as a microcosm of socioeconomic equity, it must be made clear school policies have little to do with this balance. It is the result of local government’s inclusionary zoning policies in a very affluent area (Montgomery County is among the top 20 wealthiest locales in the nation).
Want to build a subdivision in Montgomery County? Be prepared to set aside a portion of the homes to be sold or rented at below-market prices.
Inclusive zoning has produced roughly 13,000 units of affordable housing in the area since the 1970s and, to ensure fairness among those units, at least a third are placed under the oversight of a local authority, the Housing Opportunities Commission.
These properties become federally subsidized public housing, allowing households well below poverty lines to live in affluent neighborhoods and send their children to the most-advantaged schools. Because the low-income housing is spread throughout the region, there are no large pockets or swathes that unduly challenge any one school facility.
The difference between Montgomery County and Johnson County is the difference between organic and synthetic, between thoughtful and sustainable design and shortsighted workarounds.
ICCSD’s diversity policy was doomed because it took a very broad and noble goal — increased student achievement — and narrowly focused on a singular solution. In an ill-fated attempt to fix what was broken, it blindly and foolishly pulled one component from an aging, but marginally working mechanism for replacement, not considering if the new piece would function with the old.
As psychologist Andrew Maslow might say, if all you have is a school board, everything looks like a school policy problem.
The main thrust of the Iowa City diversity policy is to set maximum percentage spreads between schools, based on students that receive free- and reduced-priced meals. At the elementary level, for instance, there can be “no more than 15 percentage points above the mean percent of the districtwide percentage of minority (low-income) students for all students in K-6.”
Due to ongoing income disparity within district schools — the percentage of students on free- and reduced-priced meals ranges from 6 to 78 percent — this goal, despite its complicated wording, isn’t at issue.
The problem is that school leaders have few tools to directly impact student placement.
When the need to spend taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible is taken into account, the toolbox shrinks again.
Redistricting, which has been the predominant solution offered, risks excluding some students from the also well-researched benefits of attending a neighborhood school. Social connections can be lost since many after-school groups draw from local school populations. Parents may need to carve out additional travel time and leave from work in order to stay involved with their child’s education. Study groups at a friend’s house may no longer be as easy as walking down the street or two blocks over. Taxpayers will foot the bill for increased transportation costs.
School leaders have already gone on record to say that balancing socioeconomic levels at the various school buildings is a big and pressing problem — one large enough to require public hearings and a written policy. But they’ve neglected to reach out for help in solving it.
Schools have no jurisdiction over zoning, and they can’t mandate the communities they serve be designed in ways that discourage economic isolation.
Perhaps there are yet unexplored opportunities within the purview of the school board — establishment of magnet schools, closing facilities, or centralized core curriculum classes — but even those will serve only as a temporary patch.
Sustainable solutions will come only when all community leaders acknowledge economic isolation is a multi-jurisdictional problem they must face together.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Dec. 7, 2014. Photo credit: Brian Ray/The Gazette & Cliff Jette/The Gazette