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Take advantage of doughnuts and improve education

BY DEBORAH THORNTON - GUEST OPINION | NOVEMBER 30, 2010 7:20 AM

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There are eight urban school districts in Iowa — Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Iowa City, Sioux City, and Waterloo. These districts represent one-fourth of the total students, 120,425. From 2004 to 2010, only Dubuque and Iowa City grew — by 273 students (2.6 percent) and 958 students (8.8 percent), respectively. Statewide certified enrollment decreased by more than 9,000 students, from 483,335 to 474,227. As a result, 12 school districts are consolidating, and more will need to.

What about student achievement? The nonprofit, nonpartisan Great Schools group ranks schools on standardized test scores, Advanced-Placement participation, and graduation rates. According to Great Schools, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque earned a 6, and Iowa City earned a 7 out of a possible 10.

The other urban districts earned 2s and 3s.

In a doughnut-like ring around each of these districts, there are suburban and rural districts — all much smaller and generally scoring better. Waterloo, an urban district with 10,800 students, earned a 3, while the doughnut districts around Waterloo — Cedar Falls, Denver, Dunkerton, Hudson, Janesville, Jesup, and Union earned from 5 to 9. If the doughnut hole (Waterloo) was smaller and the doughnut was bigger, students in both areas might benefit.

Funding of school buildings and repairs must also be considered. School-infrastructure funding comes from dedicated bonds, the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, and the School Infrastructure Local Option sales tax. Traditionally, these were local taxes, decided upon by local voters. However, the state took over the local-option sales tax money last year. This fund is now known as the SAVE fund — Secure and Advanced Vision for Education.

The Iowa City School District is the urban district with the largest growth in the past six years, at almost 9 percent. And in response to spike in revenue, the district has gone on a building and spending spree.

The local-option tax alone is expected to generate more than $100 million (which must be spent). The district has constructed four new buildings in the last five years — an alternative high school, two elementary schools, and a new junior high. Construction will begin on another new elementary school soon.

The district has also spent $10.7 million on facility upgrades, plus almost $22 million in maintenance projects in the last fiscal year. In addition, there is a movement to build a third comprehensive high school, at an estimated cost of over $32 million. All to accommodate an increase of fewer than 1,000 students — while virtually every district in the rest of the state has empty classrooms.

One solution would be for the geographic areas of all urban districts to be reduced. The doughnut holes would get smaller and the doughnuts larger. The urban decrease would provide needed growth in the suburban and rural districts, countering population declines and filling classrooms. With a larger number of students, these districts could also provide more advanced academic programs.

If all urban districts were to reduce their student population by 500 to 1,200, then space issues would be resolved, overall achievement might go up, and discipline issues be lessened. With geographic downsizing the benefits to both their students and those of the doughnut districts could be significant. Smaller doughnut holes and larger doughnuts are sometimes a good thing.

Deborah Thornton is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit research group. These views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.


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