Re: Policy Reconsiderations for Low Enrollment Schools
Dear Members of the Board of Education,
Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education (or PHNEE), formed in August 2017, is a group of engaged parents and community members working to ensure that all students attending our neighborhood’s elementary schools get a quality education and an equitable opportunity to thrive.
We have studied the schools in Greater Park Hill extensively to identify some of the systems of oppression that cause inequity among them. One area of concern is the enrollment and funding process which we find to have eroded diversity, equity and inclusion in our neighborhood. We believe this is true throughout the district as well.
Before the Board approves closing and consolidating schools to accommodate declining enrollment, and in light of your stated goal to dismantle systems of oppression, we urge you to reconsider three policies related to enrollment that we believe interact to perpetuate inequity: school boundaries, choice, and student-based budgeting.
School boundaries are heavily associated with many of the unjust housing practices perpetrated in cities across the country. As redlining and blockbusting in the 1950s and 60s created segregated neighborhoods, the DPS Board’s “neighborhood school” policy created segregated schools as well. As was determined in the Keyes desegregation case, this policy was an example of de jure segregation and was unconstitutional. This determination by the Supreme Court led to 27 years of court-ordered school assignments in DPS.
When the Keyes case was terminated in 1995, the Board chose to return to the neighborhood school system in which every child was guaranteed a spot at a school close to their home. School boundaries were drawn with an eye toward maximizing integration – both racially and socio-economically – wherever possible. While this attempt was admirable, integration was nearly impossible in a city with segregated neighborhoods and in the nearly 28 years since, the near permanence of many of these boundaries has resulted in housing values increasing in areas with “good” schools, thus displacing existing school communities, and concentrating privilege in a small number of schools in the district.
In addition to perpetuating privilege, neighborhood school boundaries have not been revisited districtwide since 1995; thus, many boundaries are ill-matched to school capacities. For example, in Park Hill, Park Hill Elementary has a boundary that exceeds its capacity while Hallett Academy has no boundary.
Rather than wait until changes in demographics in the city become entrenched in neighborhood schools, we urge the Board to establish a system of reviewing school boundaries every 3-5 years with a focus on minimizing concentrations of privilege, minimizing racial and socio-economic isolation, and adapting to changes in enrollment.
At the same time that the Board reverted to neighborhood schools, it also enacted the Choice system, allowing students to attend any school with capacity but without transportation. When people choose to leave their neighborhood for a different school, they take with them not only the dollars associated with each child, but also their own financial and social capital. This means that school choice can drain resources from neighborhood schools, often leaving behind the most vulnerable and marginalized students, resulting in even greater inequity for them. The unrestricted nature of the Choice process, in which the main controlling factors are space at the receiving school and a family’s means to provide transportation, has led to further hoarding of opportunity among privileged families. We ask that the Board consider adjusting the Choice process to prioritize under-represented populations in each school (as was the recommendation of the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee in its Final Report) and seek ways in which transportation can be provided to offer greater access.
Student-Based Budgeting (SBB)
Finally, SBB exacerbates enrollment issues related to choice and school boundaries. While paying schools based on how many kids attend may seem fair – more kids require more funding and kids whom our educational system has traditionally struggled to serve need and deserve even more funding. In reality, in a small school, the extra funds do not cover the actual need and the lack of economies of scale means additional per pupil funding doesn’t provide the means to serve students well.
In a Choice environment with SBB, schools are forced to compete with one another for students and the resources they bring. There is no space for a small school to be viewed as offering something unique, but rather, small schools are viewed as failing despite research and parent preferences clearly showing that smaller class sizes are preferable. For over a decade DPS parents have been encouraged to evaluate schools by their color – blue and green were “good” schools, orange and red were “bad.” This flawed system of ranking schools known as the SPF led many, mostly privileged, families that were able to provide their own transportation to opt out of their neighborhood school leaving behind under-enrolled schools and creating a vicious cycle of loss of enrollment, leading to decreases in funding to address educational needs, leading to further decreases in SPF scores, leading to more families choicing out, and so on.
Although the district recently suspended the SPF, its legacy is still baked into our system and common notions about what constitutes a good or bad school persist. Public education is a public good that has for too long been treated as a market-based commodity. Schools should be funded to allow for the provision of a comprehensive quality education for each child. Funding based on enrollment can appear to be equitable when, in reality, it denies an opportunity to consider what each school – whether large or small – really needs to meet the needs of its students. If we close schools now and continue funding them in the same way, there is no guarantee that this vicious cycle will not continue. We ask that you establish a process for considering other models of school funding that could provide greater equity for every student, regardless of the size or type of school one attends.
These three policy areas – Student-Based Budgeting, Choice, and School Boundaries – interact and conflict with one another and skew the picture of the current state of the district. We spent many years building new DPS schools at a rate far greater than the growth of enrollment, and now enrollment is shrinking. But today’s under-enrolled schools are victims of the legacy of an inequitable market-based system of student assignment that is highly suspect if equity is truly the goal. How can we be sure that closing these particular 5 or 10 schools right now will right-size the district unless we can be sure that we have dismantled the systems of oppression that have led to under-enrollment in the first place? We urge you to reconsider these three policy areas before making final decisions.
Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education
Andrew Lefkowits, Co-Chair