Iowa City school diversity policy broader than others in Iowa

Impact unknown on enrollment, school capacity

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IOWA CITY — The diversity policy being debated in the Iowa City school district would, if adopted, be the most comprehensive in the state.

Five school districts currently have diversity plans, according to the Iowa Department of Education, and all of them apply only to open enrollment and transfer students.

The Iowa City school district’s policy would theoretically affect nearly all students because it requires all schools, except the alternative high school, to be within a certain range when it comes to the percentage of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

“It’s designed to ensure that it is really systemic, that it is across the entire district and across all grade levels,” said Superintendent Stephen Murley.

The public school systems that already have diversity plans are Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo and West Liberty.

Unique policy

Further distinguishing the Iowa City proposal from those ones is language in the current draft that says the diversity policy “shall not” affect open enrollment into or out of the district.

Iowa City’s policy also would set capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools. That has drawn a strong reaction from the public, and is not something found in the other plans.

The Iowa City school board had the first reading of the policy in December. Three readings are required for it to be approved, with votes held on the final two. The first vote is scheduled for Jan. 15, and it appears a slim majority of the board is in favor of the policy.

Supporters say research shows that schools with higher percentages of free or reduced-price lunch students, a common measure of poverty, face more hurdles to learning and that having better socioeconomic balance is good for all students.

Poverty rates

There is a large difference in poverty rates at schools in the Iowa City school district, which includes Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Hills and University Heights. That is especially true at the elementary school level, where the free or reduced-price lunch rates range from less than 6 percent to nearly 79 percent this school year.

The diversity policy says no elementary school could be more than 15 percentage points above the district’s average free-reduced lunch rate for elementary school students. Currently, that’s about 36.5 percent, and six of the 19 schools are above the policy’s ceiling.

For the three junior high schools, no more than 15 percentage points could separate the school with the lowest rate from the school with the highest. North Central Junior High is at 20 percent, Northwest is 32 percent and South East is 44 percent.

For City High and West High, the low-high difference would be 10 percentage points. City is 11 points higher than West this year. Tate High, which is an alternative school, would be exempt.

The school district’s policy would create smaller gaps than what exists in some of the other larger Iowa districts with plans.

In Waterloo, for example, schools range from 43 percent to 94 percent for the percentage of their students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Court ruling

A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision affected diversity and desegregation plans nationwide. The court ruled it is unconstitutional to integrate schools by using race as the sole factor in determining where to assign students. That is why Des Moines’ diversity policy defines “minority student” as students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Iowa City’s proposal has the same definition, and that has drawn criticism. Board member Tuyet Dorau said as a racial and ethnic minority, it was offensive to her and sends the message that the district will change the definition of minority whenever it best suits its purpose.

The Iowa Department of Education must approve a diversity plan, but only to make sure the language complies with state administrative rules, spokeswoman Staci Hupp said in an email. The state does not monitor the implementation or effectiveness of the plans, she said.

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