May 25, 2021 - News

Des Moines' public schools face an open enrollment challenge

Illustration of two people divided by a school notebook, one black student pointing one while the white student looks up with arms on her hips

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Des Moines' public schools are now prohibited from denying students open enrollment under a bill signed into law by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds this month.

Why it matters: Poor kids will be more heavily concentrated, setting those schools up for educational obstacles associated with poverty, according to advocates.

  • Students of color are more likely to be negatively affected, leading some to brand the act as "re-segregating our schools," Margaret Buckton of the Urban Education Network told Axios.
  • Hundreds of students are also expected to leave the district, costing it nearly $2.7 million in revenue in the upcoming school year.

The backdrop: DMPS is one of five in Iowa that restricted open enrollment via a voluntary diversity plan.

  • It denied transfers if they would cause a neighborhood school to exceed or fall below the district’s average poverty rate by 10% or more.
  • The plans have prevented wealthier students from fleeing for more affluent schools in Waukee or West Des Moines.
  • Educational choice advocates have challenged the plans for years. Their success now is partly credited to the pandemic and an increased call for more school options.

Yes, but: Critics have long said DMPS’ diversity plan is widely ineffective at equalizing poverty rates among schools and is intended to protect budgets instead of education.

  • For example, more than 97% of the students at Edmunds Fine Arts Academy currently qualify for free or reduced-price meals, compared to about 23% at the Downtown School, according to state data.

By the numbers: There were 301 students approved for release from the district in the upcoming school year, DMPS officials told Axios last week. That’s about about 100 more than in the current school year.

  • Another 74 students were approved to enter the district, down by one from the current school year.
  • Worth noting: Each student brings more than $7k in state per-pupil funding.

What to expect: Families this year can open enroll through August, but it's too early to assess the full impact, DMPS CFO Shashank Aurora told Jason.

  • A legal challenge is possible and could potentially result in court-ordered desegregation plans, Buckton added.

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