Last night, Iowa City, Iowa joined a growing number of school districts in trying to promote student academic achievement by giving all pupils a chance to attend good, economically diverse schools. The policy is a big step forward, as it is backed by a half-century of research suggesting that students do much better when they attend schools with a mix of middle-class and low-income students as opposed to schools with high concentrations of poverty.

But the good news was tempered by a potential legal cloud imposed by the Obama administration’s Agriculture Department, which has been raising unfounded concerns about the use of free and reduced price lunch data in socioeconomic integration policies.

Iowa City, best known as the home to the University of Iowa, has wealthy sections as well as pockets of poverty. The proportion of low-income students eligible for subsidized lunches in Iowa City elementary schools ranges from 6 percent to 79 percent. At last night’s school board meeting, the district adopted, by a 4 to 3 vote, a policy goal of ensuring that all elementary schools be within 15 percentage points of the district’s free and reduced price lunch average. Junior high schools should have no more than 15 percentage points difference—and high schools no more than 10 percentage points difference—between free and reduced price lunch rates.*

As my colleague Halley Potter and I noted in a recent opinion piece in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, these types of socioeconomic integration plans allow students from all walks of life to be surrounded by academically engaged peers, strong teachers, and a larger parental community that has the time and resources to be actively engaged in school affairs. Socioeconomic integration plans also can indirectly promote valuable racial and ethnic integration while avoiding the legal pitfalls associated with the individualized use of race struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2007 decision, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District.

The four members of the Iowa City school board showed political courage in adopting a policy that seeks to provide all students with a shot at getting a good education. It is much easier politically—if destructive educationally—for districts to continue to educate low-income students in economically segregated institutions and not to rock the boat.

One would think that the Obama administration would want to support districts such as Iowa City in their efforts to promote socioeconomic and racial integration. The president, in his famous Philadelphia address on race in 2008, observed, “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.” When a conservative school board was considering abandoning a socioeconomic integration plan in Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan weighed in, suggesting, “School is where children learn to appreciate, respect and collaborate with people different from themselves. . . . This is no time to go backward.”

Yet, at the same time, the Obama administration’s Agriculture Department has raised a specious claim that the use of free and reduced price lunch data in policies such as Wake County’s and Iowa City’s could violate federal law. In a February 26, 2009, letter, Cynthia Long, director of the Children Nutrition Division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, raised concerns about Wake County’s integration plan, which sought to ensure that no individual school had a free and reduced price lunch proportion exceeding 40 percent of students. Long wrote that, without prior consent from every parent, school districts “cannot release and/or use individual children’s eligibility status” for student assignment purposes. Using the same reasoning, the Iowa Department of Education, in a January 31, 2013, letter to Iowa City’s schools superintendent suggested the new plan violates federal law. Subsequently, an Iowa Department of Education spokesperson said “The USDA communicated to us that the use of FRL data as outlined in Iowa City’s proposal is not permissible.”

If Iowa City proposed publicly exposing the eligibility of individual students for subsidized lunches, that would clearly violate the law’s concern for privacy. But Iowa City is planning to use free and reduced price lunch data at the aggregate level to draw school district boundaries. No student’s privacy would be compromised.

President Bill Clinton’s Agriculture Department understood the difference. In a June 15, 1998, letter, Stanley Garnett, the director of Child Nutrition Services, provided guidance suggesting it was permissible for local school districts receiving federal magnet school funding to use free and reduced price lunch data at the aggregate level. “Aggregate data may be used without regard to the statutory provision since student names are not divulged,” the guidance provided.

An Iowa Department of Education official suggested there are measures of socioeconomic status other than subsidized lunch that can be used to integrate students, which is obviously true. I worked with Chicago Public Schools in developing five measures of socioeconomic status in census data. But while it is possible for a large school district with a considerable budget to collect new data, many districts don’t have the resources to create new measures of socioeconomic status. Nationally, many districts use free and reduced price lunch data to integrate students because it is readily available and inexpensive to use and can be employed without violating anyone’s privacy rights. Joe Holland, attorney for Iowa City, called the Iowa Education Department analysis “very shallow.”<

Last night, Iowa City took a bold stance in supporting a progressive policy to promote equal educational opportunity by reducing economic segregation of schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has already made it more difficult for districts to pursue racial integration plans. So why would an administration that believes in integration throw additional roadblocks in the way of plans that both protect student privacy and promote greater integration of our public schools?

*Corrected, February 8, 2013: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the Iowa City policy goal as “ensuring that all elementary schools be within 15 percentage points of the district's free and reduced price lunch average. Junior high schools are meant to reach the same goal and high schools are supposed to be within 10 percentage points of the district average.” In fact, while the elementary schools are tied to the district average, the policy prescribes that there be no more than 15 percentage points difference “between” free and reduced price lunch rates at junior high schools and no more than 10 percentage points difference “between” free and reduced price lunch rates at the high school level.