Balance schools, minimize barriers to education

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Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek, guest columnist

The Iowa City school board special election on July 19 offers the community a unique opportunity to take important steps forward. For members of the community who participated in the development of the Facilities Master Plan (FMP), we are anxious to see improvements to schools throughout the district.

In May 2015, the school board passed a secondary boundaries plan consistent with the FMP that balanced socioeconomic populations at the three junior highs and three comprehensive high schools. Among many other contingencies, the plan directs students from Kirkwood to Liberty High and students from Alexander to West.

A few weeks ago, Directors Chris Liebig, Lori Roetlin, Phil Hemingway, and Tom Yates stunned the community by rejecting the May 2015 plan. Three days later, Director Yates resigned.

In their recent guest opinions, Directors Liebig and Roetlin said they do not want to “burden the most vulnerable” students by having them take a bus to school. They fail to mention that most students at Alexander and Kirkwood are not in walking distance of any of the high schools. Further, the May 2015 plan included school-paid busing, making it unnecessary for students to pay out-of-pocket. They fail to mention the data from our own district showing no correlation between academic achievement and the distance a student lives from school. And they fail to mention the data from our own district showing an 88 percent correlation between schools with disproportionately high free or reduced lunch (FRL) populations and reading and math proficiency. In other words, disproportionate FRL population is the most accurate indicator of barriers to education in this district; busing is not a barrier to education.

With apparent disregard for the data (which is on the district’s website), the Liebig plan keeps City High over capacity and enrolls twice as many students qualifying for FRL at City and West High than at Liberty High, which will be significantly under capacity. These socioeconomic and racial disparities will only increase. Based on the data from our own district, the Liebig plan reinforces barriers to learning created by disproportionate FRL populations.

Still, in his June 29th blog, Director Liebig accuses those favoring a balanced district of “treating low-income families worse than other families.” According to Liebig, we should send students to schools that are closer to their homes even though we know — with empirical certainty — that they will face barriers to education.

Director Liebig’s “solution” is to allocate more resources to our overcrowded, high-FRL schools. To be effective, weighted resource allocation would require the district to cut large class sizes in half and hire more teachers. Under the Liebig plan, there is no space for additional classrooms and, thanks to the Iowa Legislature, no funding for additional teachers. Another consequence: schools with low FRL populations will pay the price by having the largest classroom sizes in the district.

Director Liebig has cautioned the community against talking about white flight and segregation because he says it might offend poor and minority students. He writes that proponents of a balanced district are “channeling alarmism and fear.” Our district’s demographics show that people with resources already choose not to live in higher poverty neighborhoods. If the community finds this reality alarming, we should do something to help poor people and people of color instead of reinforcing barriers to their education.

Directors Liebig and Roetlin have argued that we should not balance the secondary schools until the elementary schools are balanced. Because everyone agrees that balancing the elementary schools will take years to accomplish, we should at least mitigate barriers at the secondary level in the meantime.

On July 19, I will vote for Paul Roesler. Paul supports the May 2015 plan that moves the district forward. Our community cannot afford to reinvent the FMP every time we elect new board members. Paul will hit the ground running so that our children can reap the FMP’s benefits.

• Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek is a local attorney. She has a Master’s in Education and was formerly a high school English and Spanish teacher. Comments: marykatepilcher@gmail.com.

More opinions on the July 19 Iowa City School Board election: 

• Diversity in school helps kids thrive

• Balance and equity in Iowa City schools

• Iowa City School election a referendum on equity, attendance

• School boundaries shouldn't worsen transportation barriers

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