School-Choice Plan Upsets Racial Mix in Des Moines

LAST year, Dale and Pam Herzberg decided to take advantage of Iowa's open-enrollment plan that allows students to attend any public school in the state.

Although they live in the city of Des Moines, the Herzbergs both work as teachers in the nearby suburban school district of West Des Moines and were sending their two children to private school. When they decided it was time for 12-year-old Amanda to start public school, the Herzbergs applied for a transfer to the West Des Moines schools.

``We're comfortable with what's out there, Pam Herzberg explains.

Much to the Herzbergs' surprise, the Des Moines School Board denied the transfer requests of Amanda and 121 other white students. Applications from six minority students were all accepted.

The vote was intended to clip the wings of ``white flight,'' says Jonathan Wilson, one of the Des Moines school-board members who voted against allowing the white transfers. ``These people were part of a larger problem than they were even aware,'' he says.

The board had just received a report showing that the overwhelming majority of transfers from Des Moines to the suburbs were white students. In the first two years of statewide school choice, 402 white students opted to leave Des Moines while only 11 minority students transferred to other schools.

``I was not going to participate, contribute, encourage this kind of migration that is working against our financial interest and our efforts to provide a multicultural experience to our youngsters,'' Mr. Wilson says.

Des Moines lost about $1 million last year because of exiting students. When pupils transfer from one district to another, their state and local funding goes with them.

``Each one of those youngsters is worth $3,500,'' says Gary Wegenke, superintendent of the Des Moines schools.

The state's open-enrollment law does not allow districts to deny transfers for financial reasons, but they can turn down transfers that would adversely affect a local desegregation plan.

Wilson says the state's school-choice law was creating a ``huge sieve'' in the Des Moines desegregation plan.

``Our minority enrollment was increasing at about 1 percent a year after the open-enrollment law went into effect,'' he says. About 20 percent of the 31,000 student population in Des Moines is nonwhite.

Looking around the United States, however, Wilson saw many urban school districts with ``majority minority'' enrollments. When minorities outnumber whites, it is difficult to create integrated schools. ``My perception was that that is what was happening to Des Moines, a resegregation of race and socioeconomics that I thought was unhealthy for all students,'' Wilson says.

But the Herzbergs say their transfer application had nothing to do with race, and they did not appreciate being labeled ``white flighters'' and racists.

``I don't think we're the bad guys for wanting out of the district,'' Dale Herzberg says. ``We simply followed the law.''

Some of the parents who were denied transfers ended up moving out of Des Moines. But the Herzbergs and 71 other families appealed their case to the Iowa Department of Education, which overruled the Des Moines School Board's decision. Amanda and the other students who appealed were able to enroll in the schools of their choice this fall.

But that has not ended the debate over how to reconcile the ideology of school choice with the goal of desegregation in Des Moines and nationwide.

``If you start creating schools that are stratified by race and class, you're going to build a polarized system that is not really public anymore,'' says Gary Orfield, a professor of education and sociology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. ``It will become private schools operating inside a public system.''

ALTHOUGH administrators in Des Moines are quick to blame the suburban districts for stealing students under the choice plan, many suburban school districts are also losing students.

West Des Moines has had a ``net outflow'' of students since the law went into effect in 1989, says Fred Dorr, president of the West Des Moines School Board. ``But we take a decidedly different view of how to deal with that,'' he says. ``We've turned to our administrators and said we need to get to the bottom of these issues. We're trying to address the problem rather than telling people they can't leave our district.''

No school administrator likes to see students - and dollars - leaving, Mr. Dorr says. ``But that's what open enrollment is all about.'' Choice is supposed to force districts to reexamine themselves and work to improve the schools that students are abandoning, Dorr says.

Toward that end, school officials in West Des Moines meet with every family requesting a transfer out of the district.

``We want to know why they are dissatisfied,'' Dorr says. Through this process, school administrators discovered that a number of parents are concerned about large high schools in West Des Moines. So the school board is exploring options for building a new facility or otherwise reducing school size.

But school officials acknowledge that most parents do not check academic concerns as the reason for submitting a transfer application. The majority cite convenience; they have after-school child-care arrangements in another part of the city, for example.

``I thought open enrollment was to improve school programs,'' says Arlis Swartzendruber, who administers the plan for the West Des Moines district. ``But we're not hearing that.''

Provided with options, many families choose to send their children to schools populated by similar students. White students are most comfortable in the suburbs with other white students and many minority students do not want to attend suburban schools where they will be one of few African-American, Hispanic, or Asian students.

``That's human nature,'' says Gloria Hoffman, president of the Des Moines School Board. ``I'm sure there are some people that don't like diversity and see this as one way out of it.''

Some opponents of choice view the entire concept as a veiled attempt to resegregate schools. ``School choice, as it's likely to be implemented, is a way of promoting segregation both on class and racial terms,'' says Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. ``The strategy that the white, upper-middle class has adopted for solving public problems over the last two decades has increasingly been private solutions. Fix the world for yourself, and spend as little as possible on the rest of the world - withdrawing into private enclaves, erecting higher barriers, separating yourself off from the rest of society as much as possible.''

American society is going through a period of ``thoughtless individualism,'' says Professor Orfield. ``Everybody wants choice for themselves. The problem is that if you just think that way you get results that nobody wants. There need to be some mandated conditions. Good policies increase individual options within a framework that protects long-term community interests.''

Parents like the Herzbergs understand that there has to be some ``give and take'' when it comes to public schools. But they did not like having their children ``used as pawns in a political process.''

``I can live with policies that are applied equitably,'' Dale Herzberg says, ``but not a blanket statement that whites cannot leave the district and minorities can.''

This summer, the Des Moines School Board passed a policy requiring transfers to reflect the district's racial mix. A district-wide ratio allows four white students to leave the district for every minority transfer.

``They've put together a policy that will effectively capture the students they wanted to capture,'' Dorr says.

Des Moines administrators expect the new policy could be challenged in the future. ``Somebody may question our judgment and take us to court,'' Superintendent Wegenke says. ``But the Des Moines School Board took a proactive stance on this issue. We needed to raise the awareness of folks, and that's what our board certainly did.''

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