The Iowa City District School Board voted 4-3 Tuesday evening on the final passage of a controversial new diversity policy. The policy defines diversity through economic terms by looking at the percentage of students at any given school who are eligible for free and reduced lunches. That number varies from six to 80-percent across the district. Iowa City School Board member Sarah Swisher says they have the resources to even that out.
“Were blessed, and I can’t believe I’m saying were blessed, that only a third of our children live in poverty,” Swisher says. “We have room to make changes and to provide advantages and opportunities that a lot of school districts don’t have. And it would be a shame to take a pass on those.”
School board member Tuyet Dorau agreed with that assessment of the district –but questions how this policy would help advance academic achievement. “You’re right, we have a very thriving school district that is experiencing growth where many school districts in our state are not. I guess with this policy though, I’m seeing a lack of clarity,” Dorau says.
Jason Lewis says his daughter goes to a school with a large percentage of low-income students. He says it’s a great school — but it bears too much of the burden.
“When you see the disparity in test scores, it’s really difficult to say that the kids in that school don’t deserve a better, a better shot,” Dorau says. But school board member Jeff McGinness says the policy has become so divisive in the community that it might do more damage than good.
“Something that is looking to change the district for the better doesn’t have to be a seven-O vote, but when every single board members says they support a diversity plan –not this one– I think there needs to be a good faith effort by the entire board to work towards that,” according toe McGinness.
Those who voted in favor of the policy defended what some critics call a lack of specifics. They say the policy is just a beginning –a promise to prioritize diversity in the district –and more details will come next.
There is a possible roadblock ahead, the state Department of Education has expressed concerns that the policy may be in breach of federal law. It is believed to be the first school district policy in the state that seeks diversity using this method.