State Asks for More Information on Iowa City School District Diversity Policy

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa Department of Education said Monday it wants specific answers in four weeks on how the Iowa City school district will implement its diversity policy – a policy it has deemed illegal.

In letters to the school district, the department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued to raise concerns about the district's controversial policy.

The school board adopted the diversity policy last week, on a 4-3 vote, just days after the Iowa Department of Education, in consultation with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, said the policy would violate federal law.

The policy requires the use of free or reduced-price lunch rates to try to achieve better socioeconomic balance across the district's schools.

State and federal officials believe the way the policy would use free-reduced lunch information would potentially allow students in that program to be identified without permission from their parents.

Supporters of the policy have said it would use aggregate data to assign students to schools rather than individual student information.

But the Iowa Department of Education said it is "unable to determine how" the school district "will be able to implement the plan without using individual student information," Ann Feilmann, bureau chief for the department's Nutrition and Health Services, wrote in a letter to school district Superintendent Stephen Murley.

"The use of aggregate eligibility information is not allowable when it may result in the individual identification of a student's status by association with the aggregate group," she continued. "An example of this would be when the aggregate group is too small or the group percentage is very high."

She goes on to request that the district provide the following information by March 8:

The names of the staff who will develop the implementation plan,

The parameters of the aggregate data the district expects to use,

The step-by-step process that is proposed to implement the plan.

Murley said the district will be able to provide a response by the deadline, but he was not sure if it would have as much detail on the second and third requests as the state would like.

"The (administrative) team has met to talk about the framework for decision making, but where we may not be with it is, we may not be in a place where we can provide them the implementation, just because we're not that far down the road," he said.

The policy gives the superintendent until fall 2015 to fully meet the goals of the policy at the high school level and until fall 2018 in kindergarten through eighth-grade.

Murley said he is confident the district will be able to develop a plan for carrying out the policy that meets state and federal regulations.

Last week, the USDA, which oversees the free-reduced lunch program, told The Gazette that the diversity policy would violate the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which it said prevents "the disclosure of this data for placement purposes by local school districts without prior parental consent."

The USDA wants to work with the state and the Iowa City school district "to carefully review details of their developing plan and discuss allowable alternatives to reach the school district's education goals," Darlene Sanchez, division director for Special Nutrition Programs out of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service's Mountain Plains Office, wrote in a letter to Feilmann that was forwarded to Murley.

Feilmann reiterated to Murley the state's position that the district could implement a diversity policy using different socio-economic data, such as census data on income levels.

Murley said that while administrators have talked about alternatives, the diversity policy approved by the school board requires the use of free-reduced lunch rates.

Sanchez wrote that there are "allowable uses" of aggregate free-reduced lunch data that could help the district achieve its goals, but she does not specify what those are. The USDA said it could not comment on specifics until it has more details on the proposal.

Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said Monday that the department's position that the school district's diversity policy would be illegal has not changed.

Joe Holland, the Iowa City attorney representing the school district, has not responded to repeated requests over the past week to answer questions about the diversity policy even though school board President Marla Swesey twice said Holland would do so.
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