Iowa City school diversity plan would violate federal law, state officials say

Access to data on students receiving free, reduced-price lunch raises issues

IOWA CITY — The Iowa Department of Education says the Iowa City school district’s controversial diversity policy proposal would violate federal law.
The department informed the district on Friday that how the plan would use free or reduced-price lunch information would potentially allow students in that program to be identified without permission from their parents.

That determination does not mean the policy is dead, however. Jeff Berger, the department’s deputy director, said in an interview that there are other ways the district could write the policy so it has a similar effect.

One way, he said, would be swapping the use of free or reduced-price lunch data with census data on income levels.

The diversity policy would require schools to be within a certain range of each other in the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. It also sets capacity requirements on high schools and junior high schools.

The debate over the policy has been bitterly divisive in the district, with hundreds of people attending sometimes-raucous meetings.

Supporters of the policy point to the large disparity in free-reduced lunch rates in the district’s schools and research that says socioeconomic balance benefits all students. Several of the schools with the highest rates are in eastern Iowa City.

Opponents, many of them from North Liberty and Coralville, see the capacity language as an attempt to block the opening of a new high school and also believe some of their children would be sent to east-side schools to balance poverty and capacity rates.

The board voted 4-3 in favor of the policy last month. The final vote is scheduled for Tuesday. The board’s Governance Committee will meet Monday to discuss the policy.

School board member Sarah Swisher, who has led the crafting of the policy, said the proposal would look at free-reduced lunch in aggregate, not by individual student, and the goal is to have students voluntarily move to new schools.

“We would never want to violate an individual student’s rights by using free and reduced lunch or any targeting method,” she said, adding that she expected the final vote to occur as planned Tuesday.

School board member Sally Hoelscher, another backer of the policy, said if students were moved, it would be a group from an area.

“I guess that’s an implementation thing, but I don’t think that the intent of the policy is to move individual students,” she said.

But because the policy could cause students to be moved to a new school based on their free-reduced lunch status, they could be identified without parental consent, which is a violation of federal law, Berger said.

“So if you’re structuring something on a diversity plan that would have students targeted by area, the potential is there that a certain city block would have one or two kids,” he said. “And in that context, we can’t say that’s OK, because the potential is there for people to figure out what kids are qualified.”

Five Iowa school districts already have diversity plans, and they make use of socioeconomic status and, in some cases, free-reduced lunch specifically. They use those measures because, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to integrate schools by using race alone

But those other diversity plans apply only to open enrollment and transfer students. The Iowa City school district’s would be much more comprehensive because it covers all schools except the alternative high school.

The key difference with open enrollment is that it is parent-driven and starts with a parent’s request and must be approved by a school board in a public meeting, Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education, wrote in an email.

All references to free or reduced-price lunch must be taken out of the Iowa City school district’s diversity policy because of how the district would use the information, state officials said. But the districts with existing plans can keep it in, Hupp said.

Berger said the state’s role is not to approve or deny a district’s diversity plan but rather to ensure its language complies with state and federal laws. He said he’s confident the district can revise the policy and make it work.

“We don’t want to get in the way of their end goal, which is supporting kids in a more productive way,” he said. “But we have to just help them stay within the parameters of the law.”

Superintendent Stephen Murley, who did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment, wrote in an email to school board members Friday that members of the community contacted the Iowa Department of Education with concerns about the plan.

Iowa City diversity plan letter.

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