Thursday, October 29, 2009

Board of Regents and School Board's Boundaries

October 29, 2009, 9:15 a.m.

It's Been a Weird Week in Lake Woebegon
(brought to you by*)

The big news today for many readers of this blog will be whatever comes out of the Board of Regents' meeting in Cedar Falls today regarding budget cuts at the three State universities. Staci Hupp, "Regents, presidents to discuss budget cuts today," Des Moines Register, October 29, 2009; Diane Heldt, "Regents open to large-scale budget cuts," The Gazette, October 29, 2009, p. A1. And see Nicholas Johnson, "TARP Lessons for Iowa's Budget Cutters," October 23, 2009, with links to numerous related blog entries.

With some exceptions, during the school year I've tried to hold the blog entries to Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But this week the Spence break-in revelations, leaked out Tuesday, warranted an immediate report and comment. Nicholas Johnson, "UI Spence Break-in: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27. And now today the Board of Regents' actions will be the story -- but not until this evening (if I can get to it before tomorrow morning). Meanwhile, the Register and Gazette stories, linked above, give some notion of what may be coming.

Meanwhile, we can only plead with our local School Board members to reconsider their approach to the redrawing of elementary school boundaries.

School Board and School Boundaries. I've written enough op ed columns and blog entries about boundaries that a summary statement, plus these links to more, ought to be enough. For some suggestions and analysis of alternative Board approaches see the 11 blog entries linked at the end of "School Board Election: Now Work Begins," Sept. 9, especially "School Boundaries Consultant Folly," Aug. 28, and "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3.

1. Substantive results. Obviously, I have my own opinion about the best substantive standards. But those preferences are irrelevant to the point I want to make. I won't even comment about the rather bizarre procedure it, and the consultant, utilized to "poll" Board members rather than voting.

2. School Board flexibility. "Local control of schools" means that the Board can do virtually anything with our schools that is not prohibited by federal or state law. They can decide to let some schools sit virtually empty while others are overcrowded. They can push the disparity between schools with regard to the percentages of students in various socio-economic classes up to the limit of the law -- or try to make them more equal than the law requires. They can draw circles around each school as its boundary, or vary them somewhat to achieve a variety of goals.

3. Board must lead -- and with metrics. The Board simply must, however, go beyond the vague "prioritiz[ing of] its top criteria" reported in this morning's Press-Citizen: Josh O'Leary, "Board finalizes priorities; Not all members pleased with process," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 29, 2009, p. A1. This is the Board's legal, managerial, and political responsibility.

For example, telling a committee of 30 that it should keep in mind the Board's "priority" of "demographic considerations" is equivalent to Congress telling the FCC in 1934 that it is to regulate radio (and then television) in "the public interest."

Continuing with the "demographics" example, within the bounds of the law the Board can choose from a range of metrics.

(a) It should start by calculating the percentage of "free-and-reduced-lunch" (FRL) students in the District-wide student population.

(b) It could then say, to state the extremes, that it wants to [1] maximize the disparity, within the limits of the law, resulting in some elementary schools with a disproportionately high percentage of FRL students, and other schools that have a disproportionately low percentage of FRL students (kind of like what we have now), or to [2] draw boundaries and/or bus students so as to make the FRL percentages equal in all schools. [3] Or it could say that all schools' FRL percentages should be within some fixed number of percentage points of each other, say 5% or 10%, or whatever other percentage it wants.

I now express no view as to which of those metrics it should choose.

But for the Board to delegate its responsibility for boundaries to a committee of unelected citizens in the form of a multiple-variable set of criteria with no algorithm, made up of vague categories with no metrics, is an abdication of its responsibility, a kicking the can down the road, a recipe for chaos and frustration, and an unconscionable imposition on the time, energy, good will and financial resources of 30 dedicated local citizens and the public at large.

Ultimately, these metrics will emerge -- either because they have, finally, been declared by the Board, or because they are evident "de facto" from the numbers that have resulted from what they've done. That being the case, the earlier on the Board puts some specific metrics on the table the better off we all will be.

Obviously, this is not to say that, having done so, the Board should be forbidden to ever change its collective mind. Quite the contrary. New data, physical impractibility, political or economic pressures may very well call for some rational modifications in the numbers from time to time.

But at any given point in time, starting now, it is the Board, and only the Board, that should be specifying the specific numbers with regard to the criteria that it, prior Boards, and I, have laid out over the years.

Having done so, it is then possible, if the Board desires, to delegate the task of alternative line-drawing possibilities to the Superintendent, a consultant, or a committee -- but not before.


There has been very little actually done over the last 30 years with regard to meaningful curtailment of alcohol abuse by UI students. There have not even been many proposals that could have a meaningful impact were they to be adopted -- which they seldom if ever are.

This morning's op ed column by Professor Poe (which appeared earlier in the Daily Iowan) is an exception and very much worth reading. It may later call for some commentary on this blog, but not this morning.

Marshall Poe, "Are Drunk Students Kicking Down Your Door?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 29, 2009, p. A8.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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