More Support for Socioeconomic School Integration: Iowa City Is Close to Passing Plan

Blog Post by: Halley Potter , on January 9, 2013

On Tuesday, Iowa City’s school board is slated to vote on a new diversity plan that would set goals for balancing enrollment by socioeconomic status at schools throughout the district. Iowa City Community School District, which encompasses Iowa City and several surrounding communities, serves a mostly middle-class population of about 12,000 students, but concentrations of poverty currently vary widely among the district’s schools, particularly at the elementary level, where the economic makeup of schools ranges from 6 percent to 79 percent low-income.

If Iowa City’s diversity plan passes, it will be great news for supporters of school integration, in Iowa City and across the country. Sarah Swisher, a member of the Iowa City school board, ran for office on the issue of addressing economic disparities among schools and has spent the last three and a half years fighting for a new diversity plan. She says the district was in danger of avoiding the problem of low achievement in their high-poverty schools or treating it as unsolvable. “There are ways out of this dilemma,” she said. “The community can make a difference.” Under the new diversity plan, all students in the district would be guaranteed mixed-income learning environments.

Currently, over 80 districts across the nation have responded to research on student achievement by giving more students the chance to attend mixed-income schools. Research shows that while students’ own socioeconomic backgrounds have a big effect on their achievement, so do the socioeconomic backgrounds of their peers. Numerous sources—including the famous 1966 Coleman Report, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and a recent meta-analysis—show that poor students at mixed-income schools do better than poor students at high-poverty schools.

Some opponents of the socioeconomic integration plan in Iowa City have argued that this relationship is correlational not causational, and that instead of focusing on student composition, the district should focus on the resources they are providing schools. But research shows socioeconomically diverse learning environments provide benefits that extra resources do not. A 2010 Century Foundation study looked at outcomes for students in public housing who were randomly assigned to public housing units, and corresponding school attendance zones, throughout Montgomery County, Maryland. Those public housing students assigned to the most-advantaged schools performed significantly better than those who attended the least-advantaged schools, despite the fact that the county provided the least-advantaged schools with extra resources, including reduced class size, increased professional development, and increased math and literacy instruction.

In order for socioeconomic integration to gain steam in more districts, two groups in particular need to be convinced: the traditional education reform community and middle-class families. We saw new progress gaining support from the former last week. Jay Mathews, an education columnist for the Washington Post who supports reforms that try to make high-poverty schools work, expressed interest in using socioeconomic integration as another strategy to help boost low-income achievement. Iowa City’s new diversity plan could represent an important step forward in gaining support from the latter group, middle-class families.

Iowa City’s proposed plan sets diversity goals but leaves most of the mechanics of balancing school enrollment to be determined. Although figuring out the next steps in the process will not be easy, Iowa City has the potential to integrate schools in a way that improves educational offerings and outcomes for all students. Currently, there are big disparities in the socioeconomic makeup of schools, but the district overall is only 33 percent low-income, providing ample opportunity to alleviate poverty concentrations. Since Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa, the district could partner with university departments to create exciting magnet programs in areas such as language immersion, STEM, or music that could entice families from across the district to move schools, helping achieve socioeconomic balance with minimal changes to attendance zones.

Socioeconomic integration requires a whole community to take responsibility for the achievement of their most disadvantaged students, which can be a hard sell for middle-class families who are happy with their children’s current schools. But in Iowa City, the diversity plan could bring new magnet school options to families of all backgrounds and put pressure on the district to bring all schools up to a higher standard. “It just seems as though, in a college community, with all of the resources we have available to us,” Swisher said, “we can do a lot better.”

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