The Duluth school district, which has not changed school boundaries since the completion of its major school restructuring Red Plan a decade ago, has embarked on an effort to redraw boundaries. While ostensibly an effort to re-balance enrollments between some schools that are overcrowded and some that are underutilized, it has also invited some serious, difficult discussion about socioeconomic inequities and Duluth’s east-west divide. It also comes at a distinct point in time, as we have a superintendent on his way out the door and the most heterodox school board in recent memory. For professional reasons, I will not comment on the decision-making process or the work of the boundary-drawing consultant, Cooperative Strategies; this post look only at what they have produced and its implications for the future of Duluth’s schools and neighborhoods. (The two are, after all, deeply intertwined.)
At this stage, Cooperative Strategies has developed three scenarios for public consumption, though the firm and district have also noted that none of them are necessarily the final plan. The plans don’t do much to change the socioeconomic composition of any elementary schools, mostly because it is very, very hard to do so given Duluth’s orientation along a lakeshore and the location of its most affluent neighborhoods. The changes largely hinge on two considerations: the fate of Lowell Elementary and the question of where to draw the line between east and west side middle and high schools.
First, the Lowell question: Lowell has become home to the district’s two growing language immersion programs in Spanish and Ojibwe and no longer pulls many students from nearby neighborhoods. Scenario 1 turns it entirely into a language magnet and sends its remaining neighborhood students to either Homecroft or Piedmont or Myers-Wilkins; Scenario 3 keeps the language programs but also retains a few neighborhood students, and Scenario 2 splits the difference and moves the Ojibwe program to Stowe while leaving Spanish at Lowell. Scenario 3 has the added wrinkle of splitting the Lowell elementary population between the two middle and high schools, a situation the other scenarios avoid. The Lowell scenarios invite questions over the future of where Duluth Heights and Kenwood (and even bits of Hunters Park and Chester Park) fit into the picture and where to house the language programs. The former one is a complicated one that I won’t delve into here, and I’d need data on where the participating students come from to have an opinion on the latter.
Second, and more controversial, is the middle and high school boundary. Right now, enrollments are significantly higher in the east side schools than those on the west, a result of a decision made in the Red Plan days that somewhat balanced socioeconomics. All three proposed plans now seek to equalize enrollments. Scenario 2 is effectively what the Red Plan could have been with more equal overall enrollments: all Myers-Wilkins students (who currently split between east and west) head west, all Homecroft kids (now including the rural bits that currently feed into Lowell) head east, and the socioeconomic split becomes slightly more pronounced than it currently is. Scenarios 1 and 3 take a step toward equalizing socioeconomics by sending Homecroft kids, including the entirety of the Woodland neighborhood, west, while sending all of Myers-Wilkins to the east. The potential Woodland shift has, predictably, been the most explosive piece of the proposals.
Equity, Equality, and Outcomes
The question of the different demographics in schools sparks a debate about equity and equality, two words that get thrown around a lot in school boundary debates but mean very different things. The easiest way to sum up the difference: equality gives people the same resources regardless of where they all, while equity recognizes inherent differences in where people start and tries to balance them by giving more to those who need more, and (potentially) less to those who start with more. The recent debate about compensatory education dollars doled out by the state to help correct differences between socioeconomic groups, which had previously been divided equally among schools (the same amount per pupil per school) but are now divided more equitably by school (higher amounts to schools with more students are in disadvantaged groups and lower amounts to schools with less) is a good illustration of this divide.
In graduate school, I took a class from Myron Orfield, one of the foremost scholarly proponents of court-ordered integration in public schools. Predictably, Orfield has his share of critics from the right, who question things like anti-segregation busing or creative line drawing in the name of equality as overwrought social engineering. By the time I was in his classroom, however, the most vocal of Orfield’s opponents were coming from the left, and they usually framed their beef in a racial lens. These critics questioned whether mixing people together in the name of integration was a good in and of itself, and argued that shipping kids of color to more white schools in the belief that exposure to kids at such schools would somehow lift their performance was actually rather insulting to students of color. Instead, these critics argue, districts should invest more resources in neighborhood schools that acknowledge and lift up the culture of the people of color. In oversimplified terms, Orfield was a proponent for equality; his new critics wanted equity.
There’s a key difference in the Duluth proposals: by sending Woodland kids on a bus journey across the city to Lincoln Park and Denfeld, ISD 709 wouldn’t be busing kids from low-income families to more affluent schools; it would be doing the reverse. Several people in my circles who I’d generally describe as relatively well-off liberals really like this: they recognize their kids enjoy advantages that won’t fade away if they go to Lincoln Park instead of Ordean East, and they want to send them to mixed schools that reflect the general makeup of the country (or, at least, the area) that they will encounter when they complete their K-12 educations. The loud, angry reactions from Woodland were certainly predictable, though, as were the more practical concerns about logistics and drive times. As the Star Tribune pithily noted, the one thing the attendees at a workshop at Duluth East could agree on was that they didn’t like any of the options.
Fundamentally, these debates run directly along the most pronounced fissures in American society and asks a profound question: can an increasingly diverse school district in an increasingly economically divided metro area find some way to draw lines to mend the fences? Without launching into a discourse on Robert Putnam’s findings on diversity and social trust or the various competing contact and conflict theories of diverse societies, I’ll just say this: diversity, whether racial or socioeconomic, is complicated. And it should be if we acknowledge the full range of human possibility, and that complication deserves respect. In cases like this, I think it’s helpful to strip away the overarching theory for a moment and look at the incentives that changes might create.
What Incentives Do Boundaries Create?
School boundaries are, of course, one tool that communities can control that can shape their divides. But is drawing lines in ways that aim toward balance the best way to achieve that? (When court-ordered across a metropolitan area Orfield’s evidence would say yes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here: people have a lot of other choices.) And is there merit in working to have a critical mass of kids from certain backgrounds in the same place so that they can build a community and so that it becomes easier to deliver any additional support they may need? (If so, what exactly is this “group” we’re talking about?) For that matter, how would the various scenarios affect things such as compensatory education dollars? Redrawing boundaries could reshape the district in myriad ways.
If I sound more cautionary about district-driven integration than one might assume given some of my past writings, part of the reason has to be lived experience: when the Red Plan went into place, it too sought to equalize elementary school enrollments, but trends have not gone the way its architects expected. Some of this is only natural; it’s hard to predict the future, and as many in and around the district have noted, boundaries are something schools should revisit periodically.
But Duluth’s trends over the past ten years were not particularly hard to foresee. The two most affluent elementary schools, riding their reputation, became overcrowded; many of the lowest-income schools, meanwhile, bled kids. I’d need access to more data to say whether this is a product of open enrollment out of the district on the west side or families with kids consciously choosing to live in Congdon or Lakeside—most likely it’s some combination of the two—but it’s a pretty obvious trend. People will vote with their feet no matter where the lines are drawn. The question, then, is how individual schools can act in ways that attract students instead of pushing them out.
I don’t think this observation necessarily has obvious implications. Would Scenario 1 or 3 lead Woodland families to bail on the district, either by enrolling elsewhere or chopping Woodland of the list of neighborhoods they consider? It’s a very real possibility. Or do enough stay put and thereby create positive feedback loops into the western schools, thereby strengthening them (assuming one believes they actually need to be “strengthened”) and leading fewer families to bail out into Hermantown or Wrenshall or private or charter schools? We have a decade worth of data on those enrollment trends from other neighborhoods post-Red Plan to inform forecasts of what might happen here. Whichever option the district chooses, it needs to rely on more than a wishful belief in good intentions.
Fear for the Future
The questions surrounding the Woodland debate feed into a broader trend I observe so often now, whether in school choice or in any number of realms, from youth athletics to friend circles, that affect children’s futures. The logic of late capitalism has led child management for positive outcomes to become a second job, and parents will spend as much of their resources as they can to seek what they believe to be better. I don’t doubt that this has always been true to some extent, just as Duluth has always been divided between east and west, but it seems so much more pronounced now: there is a fundamental panic that things might go wrong, the product of a precarious society where even the well-off do not feel comfortable in their stations. Some west side parents feel forced to defend their choice to send their kids to the neighborhood schools as if it were a risky proposition.
This precarious world is a product of a socioeconomic climate where parents are scared their kids won’t be able to match or exceed their parents’ living standards. In an environment filled with choice, people panic that if they do not make the right choice, they may be setting their children up for failure. They may or may not be right, but perception is reality, and the need to choose correctly creates self-reinforcing loops. In this environment, the typical parent who does not live diversity and socioeconomic theory (and even a healthy number who do) will make the choices that most minimize risk of the concerns they have. They will, once again, vote with their feet.
Part of me wants to roll my eyes at this endless push. On a certain level, kids will be fine; unless it is a truly chaotic environment where no learning can take place, the evidence is pretty clear that factors beyond schools play much bigger roles in kids’ prospects than what goes on in the building itself. In my volunteer role as a college admissions interviewer for my alma mater, I’ve seen no evidence that talented kids with good support networks can’t make it in to the Georgetowns of the world, no matter where in the Duluth area they go to high school. But can I pretend that some of these considerations aren’t present as I decide which neighborhoods to focus on when I buy a house in this city sometime this year? No, I can’t.
School boundary discussions are wicked problems with no easy solutions, perhaps because we can’t quite agree on the question. Even the most committed, well-meaning believers in an integrated society struggle with where to draw lines, literal and figurative, for their own children. To that end, maybe it’s best that we pause and remember what lines cannot do: they cannot reverse people’s opinions on social and economic divides; they cannot make well-off kids dumber or turn students from hopelessly broken homes into college-bound scholars. Maybe that can offer some reassurance to both those in panic over potential changes and the full-throated believers in the transformative power of integration. Still, those who ultimately draw the lines have the task of managing the process with care and understanding for all of the people—and through them, the very fabric of a community—their decisions affect. May they choose well.