The previous post looked school desegregation history, and this one looks at current events. It was written byÂ Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education, equal opportunity and civil rights. This appeared on the foundation’s blog.
By Richard Kahlenberg
This week, Iowa City, Iowa joined a growing number of school districts in trying to promote student academic achievement by giving all pupils a chance to attend good, economically diverse schools. The policy is a big step forward, as it is backed by a half-century of research suggesting that students do much better when they attend schools with a mix of middle-class and low-income students as opposed to schools with high concentrations of poverty.
But the good news was tempered by a potential legal cloud imposed by the Obama administrationâ€™s Agriculture Department, which has been raising unfounded concerns about the use of free and reduced price lunch data in socioeconomic integration policies.
Iowa City, best known as the home to the University of Iowa, has wealthy sections as well as pockets of poverty. The proportion of low-income students eligible for subsidized lunches in Iowa City elementary schools ranges from 6 percent to 79 percent. At last nightâ€™s school board meeting, the district adopted, by a 4 to 3 vote, a policy that prescribes that there be no more than 15 percentage points difference “between” free and reduced price lunch rates at junior high schools and no more than 10 percentage points difference “between” free and reduced price lunch rates at the high school level.
As my colleague Halley Potter and I noted in a recent opinion piece in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, these types of socioeconomic integration plans allow students from all walks of life to be surrounded by academically engaged peers, strong teachers, and a larger parental community that has the time and resources to be actively engaged in school affairs. Socioeconomic integration plans also can indirectly promote valuable racial and ethnic integration while avoiding the legal pitfalls associated with the individualized use of race struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District.
The four members of the Iowa City school board showed political courage in adopting a policy that seeks to provide all students with a shot at getting a good education. It is much easier politicallyâ€”if destructive educationallyâ€”for districts to continue to educate low-income students in economically segregated institutions and not to rock the boat.
One would think that the Obama administration would want to support districts such as Iowa City in their efforts to promote socioeconomic and racial integration. The president, in his famous Philadelphia address on race in 2008, observed, â€śSegregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still havenâ€™t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between todayâ€™s black and white students.â€ť When a conservative school board was considering abandoning a socioeconomic integration plan in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in, suggesting, â€śSchool is where children learn to appreciate, respect and collaborate with people different from themselves. . . . This is no time to go backward.â€ť
Yet, at the same time, the Obama administrationâ€™s Agriculture Department has raised a specious claim that the use of free and reduced price lunch data in policies such as Wake Countyâ€™s and Iowa Cityâ€™s could violate federal law. In a February 26, 2009, letter, Cynthia Long, director of the Children Nutrition Division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raised concerns about Wake Countyâ€™s integration plan, which sought to ensure that no individual school had a free and reduced price lunch proportion exceeding 40 percent of students. Long wrote that, without prior consent from every parent, school districts â€ścannot release and/or use individual childrenâ€™s eligibility statusâ€ť for student assignment purposes. Using the same reasoning, the Iowa Department of Education, in a January 31, 2013, letter to Iowa Cityâ€™s schools superintendent suggested the new plan violates federal law. Subsequently, an Iowa Department of Education spokesperson said â€śThe USDA communicated to us that the use of FRL data as outlined in Iowa Cityâ€™s proposal is not permissible.â€ť
If Iowa City proposed publicly exposing the eligibility of individual students for subsidized lunches, that would clearly violate the lawâ€™s concern for privacy. But Iowa City is planning to use free and reduced price lunch data at the aggregate level to draw school district boundaries. No studentâ€™s privacy would be compromised.
President Bill Clintonâ€™s Agriculture Department understood the difference. In a June 15, 1998, letter, Stanley Garnett, the director of Child Nutrition Services, provided guidance suggesting it was permissible for local school districts receiving federal magnet school funding to use free and reduced price lunch data at the aggregate level. â€śAggregate data may be used without regard to the statutory provision since student names are not divulged,â€ť the guidance provided.
An Iowa Department of Education official suggested there are measures of socioeconomic status other than subsidized lunch that can be used to integrate students, which is obviously true. I worked with Chicago Public Schools in developing five measures of socioeconomic status in census data. But while it is possible for a large school district with a considerable budget to collect new data, many districts donâ€™t have the resources to create new measures of socioeconomic status. Nationally, many districts use free and reduced price lunch data to integrate students because it is readily available and inexpensive to use and can be employed without violating anyoneâ€™s privacy rights. Joe Holland, attorney for Iowa City, called the Iowa Education Department analysis â€śvery shallow.â€ť
Last night, Iowa City took a bold stance in supporting a progressive policy to promote equal educational opportunity by reducing economic segregation of schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has already made it more difficult for districts to pursue racial integration plans. So why would an administration that believes in integration throw additional roadblocks in the way of plans that both protect student privacy and promote greater integration of our public schools?