Sunday, April 27, 2014

Polarization and Value-Disagreements

Some concerned community members (here and here) have complained about the atmosphere and level of discourse at the last Cluster 2 redistricting meeting. Based on the discourse leading up to the meeting, I expected it to be inflammatory. I expected both those opposed to the particular redistricting lines (I expected this contingent to be the largest) and those in favor of economic integration by means of redistricting to be geared up for a fight. Although I hate the following sort of either/or thinking, I need to say it in order for you to understand what I'm arguing for: if I were presented with 'we can have the second map with its economic integration, or the status quo', I'd choose the second map in no time flat.

I also confess that I like to argue (surprise, surprise, I know). So I was looking forward to the Cluster 2 meeting. I knew going in that I shouldn't expect much in terms of a good, value-based debate. I've written about this particular problem previously. As such, I expected participants to focus on factual disagreements (this course of action will destroy the neighborhood v. it will not; balancing FRL rates will not reduce the achievement gap v. it will likely make a significant contribution toward reducing it) and challenging ambiguous concepts (a mile walk isn't truly walkable v. many people walk that distance to school regularly OR FRL rates are a good indicator of economic integration v. they miss many salient features), rather than substantive deliberation about underlying value-disagreements.

Admittedly, it is hard to deliberate about values and ends, particularly with people we barely know in only about an hour. Still, I did think that it would be possible to work with my table to find middle-ground solutions that, for the most part, would allow us to support each of the most important underlying values of both sides in the argument. So, I went into the meeting with the goal of getting our table to discuss ways of accomplishing economic integration at the same time as preserving, at least, a small perimeter (say, 0.3 miles or some such) around a school.

Our table of six began the discussion at the either/or level. At least 2 people, me included, took the position that the second iteration of the Cluster 2 map was better than the status quo, and we'd choose it over the status quo, whereas at least 2 people seemed to take the opposite view. After realizing we weren't going to get very far with this fundamental disagreement, we started entertaining concerns that could be addressed while still accomplishing each of our goals. I'm not sure what we ultimately accomplished, but I was relatively pleased with how the table was able to identify the benefits and the challenges of the Cluster 2 map while looking for ways to improve upon it without sacrificing economic integration. I believe it also allowed us to see, albeit darkly, what our value-disagreements really were.

In the absence of quality, value-based deliberation, I think this sort of middle-ground thinking is about the most we can hope for. I believe it is better than continually reiterating one disjunct of the either/or: either this particular proposal or the status quo. We truly have nothing to talk about if that's our approach. Furthermore, it allows us to see what is valuable and good in our interlocutor's position, even if we ultimately think that position misguided. People who disagree probably have noble intentions, just as we do, and they are most likely no more evil than the rest of us.

Of course, I also recognize that there comes a time, and it should happen very soon, when a decision needs to be made. I think Nicholas Johnson's post gives insight into how that decision ought to be made with deliberate expression of the values and goals embodied in the policy, and with a clear awareness of which ones are most important in our social context.

Postscript: Here are three reconstructed, value-based arguments that I heard last Thursday at the Cluster 2 meeting. Note that none of them interact with the others except at the level of supporting different final conclusions about redistricting. Furthermore, I believe that the relevant factual and conceptual elements in each argument can be sufficiently established and clarified (respectively). I have my own opinions about the relative weights of these values, but we would do well to address them as expressions of a difference in values rather than as an expression of malfeasance.

Policies should respect individual choices and personal preferences. Many families have made choices about where to live based on the school currently associated with that area, and I would not choose to redistrict us now because of the disruption it would cause us. So, I will continue to support the view that it is wrong to redistrict my family.

Socioeconomic imbalances in our schools result in great differences between our schools in terms of academic resources, parental involvement, teacher-workload, and so forth. Any difference is only justified if the difference benefits those members of our society who are least well off (i.e., the poor and those with special needs). The differences resulting from socioeconomic imbalances benefits those who are most well off and harms those least well off. Therefore, we should redistrict to better balance socioeconomic levels.

Being able to walk to work, to school, and to shopping is a crucial value in order to promote environmental sustainability. It is good to promote activities and ways of life that help our environment rather than harm it. Since redistricting in the manner suggested does not help our environment, we should not do it.


  1. Great thoughtful and clear-eyed assessment of the arguments. Really a valuable contribution to the conversation. I think its clear that for me, #3 carries the most weight, but I'd agree that are elements that are valuable and good in the other two. Sometimes when I'm refutation-bent, I don't make that clear enough.

    One small thing: is "Nicholas Johnson" in the 6th paragraph supposed to be me?

  2. Eric, thanks for the comment. I didn't number the arguments, but I assume you mean the socioeconomic argument. If so, I agree. I also think that the implicit moral principle (benefits those who are least well off) often includes considerations like the other arguments and it gets at the spirit of the diversity policy (which I take to be getting socioeconomic levels at a relatively stable place in the poorest parts of the district).

    I meant Nick Johnson's FromDC2Iowa blog post on redistricting. There is a link to it if you hover over it.

  3. Interesting. Yeah, per Nick Johnson's post, we have at least relatively clear goals with numbers attached, and we have long wait period for the whole district to finish the process, which is not really what he was proposing, but somewhat similar. that flexible boundaries model is something I've heard from some folks lately, most recently Jason Lewis in a short conversation tonight. I don't think that most versions I've heard contemplated applying it only to new students in the district, but instead to everybody, which sounds like a recipe for making people around here lose their minds to me.

  4. Thanks again for your comment, Eric.

    I think our specific numerical goals are clear. What I don't think is clear, and what certainly isn't coming from the board, is deliberation about what sacrifices are and are not acceptable to meet those specific numerical goals.

    Instead, the administration has (by necessity) taken it upon itself to balance (a) bringing schools into compliance with the FRL numerical goals with considerations of (b) reducing disruptions, (c) minimizing movements between schools, (d) aligning redistricting with new construction, and so forth. The board has tacitly approved that process when they allowed the cluster-based redistricting to take place, but they did not clearly articulate their goals, what they were willing to sacrifice to meet those goals, or how they would evaluate the success of the administration's efforts. We set ourselves up for a fight if the administration leads the way on these sorts of matters. Board members are our representatives, and as a group, they should be articulating and ordered our collective, shared values in a coherent, reasonable, and thoughtful way.

    I think the flexible boundary idea may have some promise, but I was mostly commenting on the process Nick Johnson recommended for how redistricting should proceed.

  5. I think that you're right about the board setting us up for a fight, but I also don't see much of a way around that fight, or a way that this board could have done much to articulate goals, beyond the ones articulated and implied in the Diversity Policy. Of the seven board members, three sitting ones voted against the policy originally. Of those three, one has worked energetically to see the policy implemented, one has offered harsh criticism of the policy in the press and encouraged people to find fault with the policy at Cluster meetings, and one has been a virtual non-presence. Of the remaining four, two voted for the policy and two were not members of the board at the time the policy passed. My best guess puts one of those as a firm supporter and the other, based on campaign statements and statements since, as a probable but far from sure non supporter, although not an active obstructionist. Given the range of temperaments and approaches to the policy, I don't see how this happens without a fight, on one end of the process or the other. In our current process, that fight is set to start on May 13th.

    I love the idea of a board "articulating and order[ing] our collective, shared values in a coherent, reasonable, and thoughtful way." To some degree, that's what the policy is supposed to codify, right? A decision by the board that articulates value-laden goals. But, since we can't even get some sitting members to agree that they share the value of not undermining board policy, I am not holding my breath.

    I do think that some of this has to fall on the administration, unless we want to look at the idea of a much more professionalized board. I think that with work like this its very hard to disentangle what seem to be higher order concerns about shared values and what seem to be lower order concerns about how those values are expressed in particular actions. But, I do think there is probably something about the way that duties and responsibilities are delegated here that makes it harder to get what you describe out of the board, and not just the personalities and interactions of this particular board.

  6. In theory, the Board should be the decision makers. However, the fundamental flaw in the ICCSD (to me) is that the Board is not representative of the community. The fact that we elect from random areas of the community mean that some areas are over-represented and some under-represented. Every other school district that my children have been in or I have taught in, has been divided into districts with an elected Board member from each district. That ensures that each area of the community has a voice. It seems that the odds are stacked against any Board decision, especially the controversial ones, when it is arranged this way. Maybe all Iowa districts are arranged this way? I am new to the area and am still learning- thanks to blogs like yours, Michael!

  7. Anonymous, thanks for the compliment. The district wide elections are a little strange to me too. It is better balanced across the district than it has been in the past, however.

    Eric, I think you make a good point. I guess I'd like to see the board know enough to suggest when compromises can/should be made. Maybe that's just not possible with a lay board.

  8. I think that the ICCSD made sense at one time however with the growth of the north end of the district it may just be time for Coralville and North Liberty to have their own district, this would solve a lot of problems.

  9. Anon 1:39: My guess is that they would probably have a pretty hard time paying for the North High School, the expansion to North Central Junior High (although I guess 2 junior highs are technically in Coralville/North Liberty), and the new North Elementary School without significant tax dollars and resources coming from Iowa City.

  10. Without knowing the actual numbers I would suspect that Coralville/North Liberty's tax base is healthier than Iowa City's, the University doesn't pay taxes and you have real estate gems like Sycamore Mall and Dolphin Lake Enclave,all the good growth is in Coralville/North Liberty, I suspect that in the future Iowa City will continue its decline while the rest of the area thrives.

  11. Anon 6:29: I'm rather new to the area, and my knowledge of local city and county politics is lacking. However, it was my impression that the University of Iowa has various TIF and PILOT arrangements with municipalities but that it does pay property taxes. Note also that Coralville and North Liberty have a significantly larger portion TIFs (about 40% and 15% respectively). Note also that the ICCSD part of North Liberty and Coralville doesn't include all of those cities. In short, I don't have sufficient evidence to disprove your claim that the ICCSD parts of North Liberty/Coralville have a healthier tax base than the IC parts, but I certainly would bet on it.

  12. A TIF is an investment in the future prosperity of a community, the reason Coralville and North Liberty have more TIFs is that they are the future, Iowa City is the past.