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.

UPDATE WITH A RESPONSE TO CRITICISM:

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.

2 comments:

  1. Great post, great reasoning! If affluent migration were an issue, it should be taken up with city planners not school boards, yes?

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  2. It should be consideration with both, I'd think. I could be convinced if I believed there was good evidence of that.

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