Common Good Iowa

School diversity plans protect local commitment to equity

Posted on February 2, 2021 at 4:53 PM by Mike Owen

Iowa’s system of free universal public education does more than prepare students for the future. It also brings communities together. One tool to assure this is the authority of locally elected school boards to implement Voluntary Diversity Plans, which permit a school district to deny open-enrollment exits that would jeopardize the ability of the public school to provide quality learning opportunities for all its students. This authority is used by five school districts in the state — a range of large and small, urban and rural — Des Moines, Davenport, Waterloo, Postville and West Liberty.

Governor Reynolds’ omnibus education proposal, SF159, which also provides for vouchers to incentivize students to leave public schools for private schools, includes a provision to remove the authority of districts to stop open enrollment requests that defy Diversity Plans. House File 228 focuses only on the diversity plan/open enrollment issue, and is eligible for debate in the House.

We need to be enhancing equity in Iowa, not restricting it. Gutting local Diversity Plans is a serious blow to that goal, and to the principle of assuring that every child deserves quality educational opportunity no matter their ZIP code. The Governor's plan and the House bill turn that principle on its head, reducing funds available for local districts to meet that obligation.

As the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) and Urban Education Network UEN have noted, the plans are focused on socio-economic status and English language status. IASB told lawmakers:

“The research is clear that maintaining a balance in a classroom of students of all socio-economic statuses has a positive impact on student achievement. Elimination of the ability to review and accept or deny an open enrollment request will negatively impact the ability of these districts to minimize a concentration of low-income or English-language learner students.”

UEN notes that “since poverty is often concentrated in urban centers in minority populations, minority concentration may increase if open enrollment out is not regulated.” At the same time, the plans do not stop low-income or English language learner students from open enrolling out of the five districts.

On the fiscal side, open enrollment diverts taxpayer dollars from one school district to another. The Legislative Services Agency has estimated this amount to be $7,389 per student, based primarily on the per-pupil cost used to build a school budget, and a state supplement for teacher leadership. So as LSA notes, the impact to the state is zero, but the sending district may well lose state funds without any offsetting cost savings. Based on previous open enrollment requests denied due to diversity plans, LSA estimates Des Moines schools would lose over $1.4 million, Davenport $783,234, and Waterloo $421,173. As LSA cannot determine how many open enrollment requests were not made due to diversity plans, those figures — and those of Postville ($14,778) and West Liberty ($0) — may be low. In fact, West Liberty Superintendent Diego Giraldo made the point in written testimony on HF228 that ending his district's plan would be detrimental to his district's enrollment. “We will lose a large number of our Caucasian population and most significantly a detrimental impact to our students' learning experiences.” Giraldo wrote that “diversity of all kinds strengthens educational effectiveness. The primary purpose of the plan is to promote diversity and avoid minority student isolation.”

Eliminating diversity plans, even more than the current open enrollment system, would undermine the sense of community that arises from a shared commitment to local schools. Honoring a commitment to shared goals and responsibilities is Iowa's best hope to provide the strongest schools and equal opportunity for every Iowa child.

As it affects only five districts at the moment, this issue can easily fly under the radar when larger threats to public education are proposed, such as vouchers and expanding so-called “charter schools.” But many pieces of the Governor's plan can be passed on a piecemeal basis, with devastating impacts on equal opportunity, community cohesion and public education, even if the controversial, shiny object of school vouchers is stopped. The open enrollment expansion is one example.

[1] SSB1065 Testimony, Iowa Association of School Boards, 2021.

[2] UEN 2021 Issue Brief: Diversity Plans, Open Enrollment and Poverty Trends, Urban Education Network, January 2021. Brief Diversity Data - Jan 2021.docx

[3] Fiscal Note, HF228, Legislative Services Agency, Feb. 1, 2001.

[4] Public comments, HF228, Education Subcommittee. Giraldo comments Jan. 20, 2021.

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