I’ve stayed silent as I watched the most recent high school boundaries discussion unfold. I was disappointed when a coalition of board members reversed boundaries that offered balance in our classroom for a plan that provided less equity for our students. Well, more than disappointed. Their actions have set us on a dangerous, myopic path, one that may seem right in a bubble, but in reality it’s detrimental to the overall learning environment, constitutes a social injustice perpetrated on the children of our district, and in the long term leads us blindly down a path our community has walked before–one that is actually at the root of our balance problems in the first place: Systematic socioeconomic segregation.
This backsliding on boundaries continues that pattern and will only harm our efforts for inclusionary housing, improved transportation infrastructure and real, lasting acceptance of every member of our community. There are certain elements baked into how we do business now that encourage this segregation, not the least of which the “affluent migration” of those with means and agency to move further and further out from our urban cores, away from our existing neighborhoods. What’s left behind ceases to be supported as we grow outward and these areas are allowed to die on the vine.
My neighborhood on Iowa City’s southeast side is a prime example. In 1968, my home was a Parade of Homes showcase property. I live on Hollywood Blvd., half a block from Taylor Drive. In the last few decades the neighborhood has degraded, in part because of decisions made by municipal governments, but also because of the aforementioned migratory tendencies. I love my neighborhood and my neighbors. I stand by them and work to improve it as best I can. It takes courage to stay and work to improve a neighborhood. It’s easy to cut and run. We can bring my neighborhood and others like it across the district back to prosperity, and maybe even celebrate our diversity. Adopting high school boundaries that encourage a tiered education system that separates socioeconomic groups will never help our communities grow and repair the damage done.
Our municipal governments exacerbated our growth problems over the last 50 years by enacting policies that have not supported sustainable growth in every area of our community. We concentrated low-income housing a few locations instead of working toward inclusionary housing that integrates people of all backgrounds. The Iowa City Council’s decision on inclusionary zoning for Riverfront Crossing is a huge step in the right direction and we need the other municipalities to step up with similar initiatives if we truly want to solve the problem.
The current argument over high school boundaries has not engaged the real problem we face. We have to fix the systemic problem our housing practices have brought on. Not a short term fix. It’s going to take a concerted, collective, long-standing effort from the school district, the county government, and all the municipalities. And that change will happen glacier-slow in comparison to how quickly our children move through our schools. We have to do what we can to provide them with the education they need. We owe it to our students and and teachers to provide the best possible environment for learning. Socioeconomic balance is a key component to that environment. In the short term, moving some students to schools further from their homes is one way to foster that environment.
I want to stress that this solution should not be considered the end of the struggle. It’s a stop-gap that should be seen as a way to provide the best learning for the most students. Will it be challenging? Yes. Will some families and students sacrifice convenience for the good of all? Yes. Do I understand the impact that inconvenience will have on the low-income families who are affected? Yes. I grew up in a low-income household and attended a school far from my home. It was hard at times, but it was the best solution for my education needs and I am glad for the opportunities it afforded me. Is it imperative that low income families not be the only people impacted? Yes. It’s the job of the school board to guide us through these hardships and remain focused on our long-term goals while easing the burden of all our families.
My daughter just graduated from 6th grade at Mark Twain Elementary, a school where over 70% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, last I heard. She received an excellent education there, so yes, I know it’s possible for schools to do a great job no matter how they are made up demographically. My family has lived it. We made a conscious decision to stay at our neighborhood school when the district and the federal government encouraged us to bail to a school that didn’t have the challenges that Mark Twain has. We stayed, became members of the Twain community, and hopefully helped make it a welcoming, vibrant oasis for learning and community-building.
The problem is not in the job Twain or any of our schools are doing. The problem is opening the door for the ICCSD to become an even more socioeconomically tiered district and exacerbating the already difficult challenges many of our schools face. If these boundaries stand, at some point–and it won’t take long–those in our community with the agency to advocate for themselves will do so, and as time passes those who are advantaged will draw more and more resources to their schools to the detriment of the schools and neighborhoods that have less agency. We will have made the same mistake our forebears made with low-income housing and other initiatives that served to divide our community based on income brackets. We will have made our schools worse. And that’s an injustice perpetrated on those who have the least agency in our community: our children.
At the moment, balancing our schools by shifting boundaries is the most prudent way to provide the best for the most. We must look at it as a short-term solution and dedicate ourselves to electing candidates who understand that the school district doesn’t exist in a bubble, it’s part of a whole that has been dysfunctional and driven by class and wealth toward a tiered community at nearly every level. We must elect people who will work with the rest of our leaders to fix the root of our problems and not simply rearrange the deck chairs on a slowly sinking ship. If these boundaries stand, the ICCSD will have helped make a difficult, tenuous situation worse. This upcoming special election is a referendum not only on how we fill our classrooms, but on what kind of community we really are, one that makes hard choices for the greater good, or one that hides behind the status quo. This community calls itself progressive, but our collective decisions always favor the status quo. Let’s make our actions follow our words and pave the path to real change.