WATERLOO — A proposal in the Iowa Legislature would stop school districts like Waterloo from denying open enrollment requests based on preserving diversity.
Critics say the legislation, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate, could lead to more segregation in the schools. But proponents say parents ought to have a choice where to educate their kids.
The legislation would affect only five districts that have diversity plans — Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo and West Liberty.
Waterloo Community Schools’ plan measures diversity by identifying the family income level of students. Those who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals are considered low income. As of last school year, nearly 66 percent of students were low income, according to district data.
“The diversity plan was not ever implemented to stop open enrollment. It was really started to create a balance in and out,” said Superintendent Jane Lindaman. For a student’s open enrollment out application to be approved, a student with a similar socio-economic status needs to open enroll into the district.
Not keeping the plan in place could result in a less-diverse higher-poverty district, she said. Citing a correlation between poverty and racial minority status, Lindaman suggested that a change could also “take us in a direction to be a more segregated community.” In addition, she believes it could negatively impact the community’s economic development.
“Removing that protection is a concern for me and it should be a concern for the community at large,” she said.
“My stance would be that there are some districts that have very unique demographics,” Lindaman added. “We value our diversity. Some districts that are unique may call for some unique legislation.”
Supporters of the legislation say families who live in districts like Waterloo ought to have the same opportunity as other families in the state.
“We should provide as many options as possible, and this is one of those,” said Drew Klein, Iowa director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. The group has registered in favor of the proposal.
Klein says those who are worried about privileged families leaving districts should realize it’s already happening. What’s at issue, he says, is that families who can’t afford to pick up and move are having their requests denied.
“These families are far from rich,” he said.
It’s not clear yet whether the legislation will move.
Senate Education Chair Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said last week that she still is studying the issue. She is sympathetic to families who want to open enroll but can’t because of the diversity plans.
In theory, she said, “It’s not OK” that those students don’t get the same rights as others.
“I truly understand what she is saying,” said Lindaman, but added that “equality and equity are not the same thing. My job as the superintendent really is to look at what would make our district stronger and certainly to avoid things that could cause limitations for our district.”
Ed Tibbetts of the Quad-City Times and Erin Murphy of the Lee Enterprises Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.