Saturday, December 28, 2013

What's up with Hoover after the December 10, 2013 vote?

On December 10, the Iowa City School Board voted 6 to 1 to implement the phasing plan as proposed by the administration. As part of the phasing plan, Hoover Elementary School will receive much needed renovations in 2014 -- including AC and addressing violations of building code issues. A Hoover attendance area will remain in place until 2019, which coincides with the opening of two new elementary schools in North Liberty and Eastern Iowa City. All in all, except for the closing of Hoover, the outcome is very favorable to the interests of the Hoover community.

What is my take on the result? I'm disappointed, but the outcome was what I expected. So, where does that leave those of us who remain unconvinced by the arguments for closing Hoover?

1. Our successes thus far:
  • Election advocacy was largely successful. Six of nine candidates in the 2013 school board election expressed clear opposition to Hoover's closure, including the 2 highest finishers, and those two board members have continued to express concerns with Hoover's closure. Chris Liebig had an insightful post on this matter here. The third person elected to the board has expressed opposition to the process in which Hoover was closed.
  • Hoover is receiving much needed renovations in 2014, and it is situated in a much better position than it was when the administration first presented their proposal to the board in October. Recall that the Hoover attendance area would have been closed in 2016, and it would then be used as a temporary facility for other attendance areas with the result that many Hoover students would most likely have been moved 3 or 4 times. Our advocacy on behalf of Hoover played an important role in protecting Hoover students from these needless moves.
  • We were instrumental in advocating that Mann and Lincoln be swung together through the East Elementary so that the North Elementary could be brought online one year earlier than was proposed in the November board meeting. This small change will help relieve capacity issues in all parts of the district in a more timely manner than we would have seen otherwise, and it also helps out Hoover's current teachers who will likely have another choice for a long-term teaching assignment at a school of their choosing.
2. Hoover's closure is not set in stone. Partially because of our advocacy, Hoover will remain in operation most likely with its current boundaries until 2019. There are multiple school board elections before Hoover's closure will be ultimately decided.

3. The 6-1 vote is not an indication of how good the arguments are for closing Hoover, and it isn't an indication of public support for doing so.
  • Our consistent criticisms of the stated rationale for closing Hoover has weakened the case as evidenced by some board member comments, and the outcomes of the past school board election.
  • A petition to keep all of our community schools open has been circulated and has collected a large number of signatures on our paper petition and our online petition (sign it here!). At last count, there were well over 800 signatures collected between them.
  • There are, at least, two board members who were just elected who are sympathetic to our argument. The board director who voted against the proposal (Tuyet Dorau) was the one who received the highest number of votes in the last school board election. The 2nd place finisher, Chris Lynch, expressed strong sympathies for keeping Hoover open and seems open to revisiting the closure of Hoover if certain conditions are met. The 3rd place finisher, Brian Kirschling, expressed his disapproval of the process of closing Hoover before and after his election.
  • The four other board members have two years left on their term, and each of those seats are up for reelection in 2015.
  • Our advocacy during the last election helped shape the positions of a significant number of board members, and that had an impact on the last election. It will probably continue to be the case in 2015 and beyond.
  • Finally, the phasing plan as a whole was widely supported by the public and the school board directors. As such, it was no surprise that some school board members would support the overall phasing plan, even if they disagreed with some features of the plan.
4. Over the course of the next couple of years, I will be important to make the administration and the board provide evidence that the goals of the phasing plan are being met: that (a) facilities equity is indeed designed to benefit those who are most in need in our district -- particularly low-income students, minority students, and special needs students. The mistake of not properly soliciting and actually getting feedback from our minority communities with regard to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the Raptor ID program need to also be rectified with the facilities master plan;  (b) we need to ensure that operational costs will not present a burden to our community -- particularly on those who are least well off -- and (c) that the closure of Hoover, all things considered, will result in a net benefit to the district as a whole. If the evidence about operational costs, enrollment, and opinions from those who are least well off in our district do not bear out the administration and the board's claims, then we, as a community, should be prepared to go another route.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Who is really for City High?

Included below are my comments to the Board of Directors for the Iowa City Community School District on the Phasing Plan (12/10/2013):

I am asking the board to make an amendment to the phasing plan that would suspend Hoover's 2019 closure, and set up an annual re-evaluation, beginning in January 2015, of whether it is in the district's best interest to retire Hoover in 2019. The re-evaluation should be based on a confluence of factors including projected enrollment, the success of capacity additions elsewhere, its overall effect on operational costs and classroom sizes, and its effect on City High. I also believe it is important for the board to consider the scenario in which it should reverse the closure of Hoover.

Why should the board make this amendment rather than (a) continuing with the phasing plan as is, or (b) leaving Hoover's closure as is but re-evaluating it each year?

There are three major benefits of my proposal compared to these two other options. First, having the default option to keep Hoover open now would indicate that the school board has heard and will consider the concerns that the community is raising about the process of closing Hoover. That would go a long way to restoring our community's trust, even if Hoover will inevitably be closed. Process is important.

Second, this amendment would help keep Hoover Elementary and its community strong up to 2019. The current policy increases the chance that the neighborhood around Hoover and the school itself will deteriorate as people open enroll out of Hoover and abandon the neighborhood. Keeping Hoover Elementary and its neighborhood strong is important.

Third, and this is my most important point – and one I hope you'll consider carefully – this amendment is better for City High. That's really important to all of us, since all of the Hoover families will be sending our kids to City High. Still, defaulting to keeping Hoover open would force the administration and the board to look for alternatives to the Hoover land for relocating City High's tennis courts and softball field. One of the best alternatives – and one that the administration has apparently investigated at our prompting – is Chadak field. Chadak field is a 5-acre plot of land that is one block along 5th avenue from City High.

Last night, Superintendent Murley said that the administration had performed a preliminary evaluation of the site, and that the administration is ready to provide information to the board, should they ask or decide to pursue it further. Why haven't they? From an outsider's perspective, it appears that some board members are reluctant to pursue this option, even though it would greatly benefit City High. We could keep relocated fields all but on-site if Hoover stays open, or bring back the baseball field if its closed. Adopting this amendment would result in possibilities like Chadak field becoming realities for helping City High. But as long as the board remains committed to a default of a retired Hoover, they will likely be unwilling to pursue these valuable options for fear of weakening the case against Hoover. That is a disservice to our community, and a disservice to City High. Adopting this amendment would be best for City High!

Lastly, I know some board members have expressed concern about how adopting an amendment like the one I've proposed would place Hoover in a limbo state. To that I say, we already are and that's not going to change. We won't be under the illusion that Hoover's fate is settled until at least 2017-2018, and as a result, we are and will continue to be in limbo for many years to come.

For these reasons, I urge you to adopt my proposed amendment to suspend Hoover's 2019 closure and set up an annual re-evaluation of whether its retirement should be reinstated.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Update on How to Convince me to Support Closing Hoover

I commend the school board and the administration for addressing some of my requests from my prior post 'How to convince me that its best to close Hoover?' In particular, I appreciate that the topic was finally discussed by the school board at the last operations committee meeting, and I appreciate that Superintendent Murley has been discussing (a) the specific tradeoffs for City High were Hoover not to be closed, and (b) discussing how those align with particular values that our community holds.

The specific tradeoffs in a plan exactly like the current phasing plan but that didn't close Hoover would (a) result in moving the tennis courts and softball field that are currently on City High grounds to an off-site facility. There is no evidence that the administration has explored close, but off-site locations like the 5-acre Chadak field, which happens to be 1 block from City High property; (b) there is an unquantified (or, at least, not yet quantified) loss of some degree of operational efficiency that, if it were sufficiently large, may have an effect on class sizes. Those are clear tradeoffs, and they are something that our community can weigh and evaluate. I commend the board and administration for making the tradeoffs clear.

I also commend Superintendent Murley, Principal Bacon, and City High Teacher Robin Fields for directly tying equity concerns to the welfare of those who are least advantaged at the meeting last night at City High. See an article here about some of their comments. I am glad that we are finally putting some substance into all of our talk about equity.

Overall, I'd say that puts the board and the administration a third or half of the way there to convincing me that the closure of Hoover is best course of action. If you recall, I asked them (a) address the specific tradeoffs, (b) talk about the most important features of substantive equality -- i.e., how the plans will affect those who are least well off. They've done both of those things.

Now, I ask that they continue this worthwhile process and solicit opinions from those who are most burdened in our community about this tradeoff. I think this should be a general practice of the board and the administration, and it would assure me that those who are most affected by inequities and most burdened in our community agree with the judgments that some are making regarding which specific tradeoff is best for those who are least well off. (See the second part of my (2) in my prior post).

Finally, to make the argument airtight (see my last point in my prior post) I would like to know that functional alternatives like placing the tennis courts and softball field on Chadak field (a relatively inexpensive 5-acre plot that is a single block from City High or a mere 200 steps more from the closest part of Hoover's land to the closest part of Chadak field) are not feasible.

I commend the administration and the board on their recent efforts, and I encourage them to continue working to convince us using a proper deliberative process. Engage with low-income and minority members of our community. Find out what they think. Explain to us why the alternative that have often been suggested haven't really been addressed.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Primer for Talking About Equity

I've discussed previously (here and here) how the Iowa City Community School District has been afflicted with an inability to speak intelligibly about equity matters. See Exhibit A. Exhibit B are the numerous conversations I've had over the last 9 months with regard to the Facilities Master Plan. It has been said that (1) equity requires having three equally-sized comprehensive high schools and that (2) we should attempt to have equal-sized 'footprints' for each campus. It has been said that (3) equity requires moving West and North High athletic facilities off-site if they are moved off-site at City High. It has also been said that (4) having different parking requirements at one school compared to another is an "equity" issue, or having athletic facilities off-site is an "equity" issue. What should we make of these claims?

John Rawls' Theory of Justice lays out a helpful framework that can be used to evaluate these claims. For Rawls, justice is really about fairness. Its about equity. He has two principles that will be helpful for evaluating the four claims:
"First Principle: Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all;

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:
They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; 
They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle)."
So, let's turn to the four claims. It is important to see that none of these supposed "inequities" involve civil rights violations (e.g., violations of equal basic liberties) and that in the status quo and in all proposals that have been considered, students would have an equal ability to pursue positions and offices that are available within a school and available for the entire district.

Now, lets turn to the difference principle. What is the reasoning behind the difference principle? Suppose that all differences were unjustified. Then, one would have to say that a rabble of paupers (every single person living in abject poverty) would be a more "fair" system than a system with everyone making at least a living wage but with some variations. Rawls' idea is that differences can be justified if they are more beneficial to the least-advantaged.

(1) equity requires having three equally-sized comprehensive high schools

Note: the high school will not be equally-sized under the phasing plan. West will be about 90 students larger than City, and City will be about 90 students larger than the North High School.

Does this requirement benefit those who are least-advantaged? There has certainly been no argument to that effect. But still, all of these differences would need to be justified. I think there are good reasons for not tearing down capacity at West. That would likely make conditions more crowded and harm those who are least well off. Furthermore, I think there is good evidence that suggests that larger high schools are detrimental to the well-being of those who are least well-off. Thus, there seem to be good reasons for having inequities in high school sizes at least at the current time. Tearing down capacity at West would be harmful because of overcrowding, but expanding City High to West's size (as well as the North High School) would be harmful to the least well-off since larger high school tend to have increased drop-out rates and a significantly larger achievement gap.

(2) we should attempt to have equal-sized 'footprints' for each campus

The only way to accomplish this goal in any reasonable period of time would be to sell land at the North and West High Schools, or to completely tear down and rebuild City High somewhere else. This form of equity would be purchased at the expense of overall well-being, particularly for those who are least well off. The fact is that City High won't have an equal footprint, and taking Hoover's land won't solve that problem.

(3) equity requires moving West and North High athletic facilities off-site if they are moved off-site at City High

This could very well be a good example of equity run amok. Maybe political philosophers can start using it as a real world example of the pauper argument above in defense of the difference principle.

4) having different parking requirements at one school compared to another is an "equity" issue, or having athletic facilities off-site is an "equity" issue

How do differing parking requirements harm those who are least well-off? How many of the least-advantaged persons drive to high school? This benefit is primarily for those who already have advantages. Furthermore, it isn't clear how not having tennis courts and a softball field at a relatively close off-campus location would harm the least-advantaged. Are there even any "least-advantaged" students on those teams?

Now, all of these differences need to be justified in terms of how they benefit the least-advantaged people in our district. The best way to find out what those members of our community think about the Facilities Master Plan -- if indeed equity is our true concern -- is to ask them. Meet with them. Listen to them. I seriously doubt you'll find them concerned about having tennis courts and softball fields off-site compared to losing a valuable, socioeconomically diverse, and academically excellent elementary school that provides a significant benefit to a number of students who are least-advantaged -- including a number of low-income students in addition to the 13 or so kids with autism whose routines and habits would be disrupted and significantly harmed by the closure of Hoover (particularly since people with autism tend to struggle deeply with impending change).

In short, the so-called equity argument for expanding City High and closing Hoover is extremely weak. It doesn't address real matters of equity concerning those who are least advantaged, and it really devalues the whole concept. Our community would do well to actually think critically about how we talk about equity and how the four arguments above make it seem like the district is addressing genuine equity issues, when in fact, it directly harms some of the least-advantaged members of our community. At the very least, it is time to get beyond the vapid talk about equity when it lacks any substance.


A friend of mine has objected to my characterization of the equity argument. He has argued that athletic facilities benefit all students, and having them on-site rather than off-site makes them more convenient for students who aren't well off. Furthermore, he says we should be concerned about affluent migration to the West and North being affected by these amenities. I think these are important points to consider, and if there were sufficient evidence for them, they would address my points.

Here's my response: First, I also don't think it is "just" for "them"; rather, by bringing the bottom up, you make the entire system better.

Second, the tradeoff (at least according to Murley's story right now) is between having tennis courts and a softball field off-site versus a vibrant, socioeconomically diverse, and academically excellent elementary school. In other words, it isn't about althletic fields in general, or not having fields, and it isn't about having curricular offerings. Leaving Hoover open wouldn't impact any of that. Thus, it is hard for me to imagine a compelling case being made that having off-site tennis courts and a softball field are of greater value for those who are least well off than Hoover.

Third, there is simply no evidence to support the claim that affluent migration will be influenced by having tennis courts and a softball field off-site rather than on-site. Furthermore, it is probably more likely that the school district closing down older, popular elementary schools like Hoover would make affluent people move elsewhere than having tennis courts and softball fields off-site.

The only compelling argument that one might have here is that one could envision City High expanding significantly, but that's not the vision that I sense in our community. Remember than in the school's polling data, there was a very strong preference for 1500 student schools compared to 2200 student schools. One wonders how, say, an option of a 1200 student school would have compared. I can tell you how I would have answered! Furthermore, this assumption certainly hasn't been part of the argument, and in any case, it shouldn't be assumed without argument.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Miguel's Story

Miguel and Anita are parents of a preschooler and a 3rd grader at an elementary school in Iowa City, and they have only been living here for a little over two years. Anita is a graduate student at the University of Iowa, and Miguel works 2nd shift at a warehouse distribution center.

Each week, Miguel volunteers for a small amount of time in either his preschooler's class or his 3rd grader's class. He has a good working relationship with the teachers and the staff at the school, and they all know him by name.

If Miguel followed his current schedule, he would be scheduled to volunteer again on January 9, 2014. Over the holidays, the elementary school that Miguel's children go to will roll out their new Raptor ID program. When Miguel showed up on that date, he does not have the required form of ID. He is told that he can return home and retrieve a valid form of ID. Miguel returns home to retrieve his Guatemalan consular ID. It is the only form of official ID that he has. Unfortunately, this form of ID cannot be used with the Raptor ID system. So, the school staff member follows protocol and she informs Miguel, whom she had seen every week of school over the past two years, that she is very sorry but that she cannot allow him to enter the school. Nevertheless, she does inform him that he can go to the District Office and she gives him the address to do so, so that he can have an acceptable form of ID next time. Although his 3rd grade daughter (and her teacher) was expecting him, Miguel cannot volunteer in the classroom.

Miguel had a difficult time getting an chance to make it to the District Office to get an official ID. He didn't have a vehicle, and it would take him at least two hours and fifteen minutes to make the round trip bus ride to the office, and that's assuming that he catches the buses immediately. Unfortunately, he drops off his preschooler at 8:30 am, picks her up at 11:30 am, so it would be virtually impossible for him to get to the District Office during that time. Then, he picks up his older daughter at 3:00 pm. Shortly thereafter, he starts his shift at work. There is no time that Miguel can reasonably get to the District Office, and thus, there is no way for him to continue volunteering in his daughter's school.

Although I have changed the names and other small details in order to make the story anonymous, Miguel's story is based on real stories. And it shows a significant problem with the implementation of the Raptor ID program, particularly for immigrants and low-income people.

I think everyone knows that the policy will have little effect on sexual abuse, Sandy Hook style shootings, or other crimes. But I also recognize that the primary reason for this policy is to cover the district's ass so that if something like that did happen, then the courts would see that the district did due diligence to prevent it. I understand this, but there has to be some way to accomplish that goal without adding additional burdens to some of the most burdened members of our community. Talk with the Center for Worker Justice -- listen to what they have to say. See if there is a solution that accomplishes the district's goals without harming people like Miguel.