School diversity plan stirs debate

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Would a “diversity policy” by any other name have raised this much of a stink? We’ll probably never know.

But things sure are heating up over an Iowa City School Board proposal. The email chains are flying.

So much so that today’s vote has been postponed. Instead, school board members have scheduled a listening post from 9 to 11 a.m. at the district’s headquarters, 1725 N. Dodge St. in Iowa City. Let’s hope it clears up at least some of the most serious misperceptions about the proposed policy and the concerns it means to address.

First off, the policy does not specifically target kids who are members of racial or ethnic minorities — something critics have called condescending. The “diversity” it seeks to promote is economic. The “minority” kids are those who receive free and reduced-price lunch — i.e. kids in poverty — a group that statistics show is more likely to struggle in school.

The policy would even out distribution of that population, which now wildly swings from 6 percent to nearly 80 percent at the elementary level. Maybe you think that’s condescending, too. But researchers have found that schoolwide concentrations of poverty of greater than 50 percent negatively affect student performance across the board. When the number goes down, every type of student performs better.

Correlation is not causation, opponents of the policy say, and that’s the truth. Just because two things happen in tandem doesn’t mean one causes the other. But on a more practical level, it doesn’t matter what’s so magic about that 50 percent mark, if it works. And it’s no knock on teachers and administrators at schools with high free- and reduced-priced lunch numbers, or the innovative ways they’ve found to deal with the trend.

The revised draft policy (available on the district’s website) would require the district to fully use existing building space — another of critics’ concerns. It likely would require busing — something the district does already. Some, including some School Board members, have said the board is trying to push the policy through too quickly. That’s one concern with merit.

With so much rumor and misunderstanding out there about the policy, the board is right to take a step back and explain what the policy is — and isn’t — about.

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