Iowa Redefines ‘Minority’ in Wake of U.S. Supreme Court Decision

Published May 1, 2008

The Iowa Department of Education has redefined the term “minority” in response to a ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer that schools seeking racial diversity cannot use quotas to assign students to schools.

The 5-4 decision marked the first time the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue in K-12 education. In response, the Iowa Department of Education amended its open-enrollment rules for districts that previously enacted voluntary desegregation, said Carol Greta, an attorney for the state.

“Our only goal was to keep the districts able to operate [in a manner similar to the one used before the ruling],” Greta said.

‘Maintaining’ Status Quo

Before the ruling, the affected districts–Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo, and West Liberty– employed a voluntary desegregation plan, Greta said.

Now, those districts have broadened their definition of the term “minority” student, considering a combination of socioeconomic status, English language-learning status, and student achievement data.

“The goal of the department is merely to maintain the status quo, so those districts who desire to maintain diversity and cut down on white flight can maintain the ability to,” Greta said.

Redefining Words

The redefinition was the product of an Iowa Department of Education meeting held shortly after the Supreme Court’s June 28, 2007 ruling.

Greta said the new definition is not an attempt to circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Instead, she said, it parallels Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion that diversity can be maintained as long as race is neither the sole nor defining factor.

Others, however, say “circumvention” is exactly what it is.

Don Racheter, president of the Public Interest Institute, a public policy research group based at Iowa Wesley College in Mount Pleasant, said the state education department’s redefinition of the term “minority student” represents a deeper problem–one that results in children getting stuck in “cruddy, monopolistic, at-the-force-of-a-gun, taxpayer-enforced enterprises.”

The Iowa Department of Education employees who made the decision have advanced degrees and work in education, Racheter said, so they think they know better than parents how to educate children. The decision, he said, is not in children’s best interests.

“The districts that have plans in place claim that what they want to do is prevent white flight, but mostly what they’re trying to do is trap students in low-performing schools and keep them from going to a school where they can get a decent education,” Racheter said. “The people who are doing this thing are, I think, immoral. They are putting their own interests in front of the children involved.”

Instead, Racheter said, the Iowa Department of Education should let parents have more of a say in where their children go to school. He said parents can gain power by rallying with like-minded organizations, staying informed, and contacting state legislators.

Parental Choice

Other critics say the Iowa Department of Education is missing the U.S. Supreme Court’s point altogether.

Jim Hawkins, executive director of Professional Educators of Iowa, a teachers union based in Des Moines, said redefining the word will do little to stem the tide of wealthy parents moving to better districts or buying their way into private schools if they feel their local public school isn’t good enough.

“Letting parents be responsible and choosing is the issue,” Hawkins said. “Our education departments across the nation are not for parental choice.”

Instead of redefining minority status, Hawkins said, Iowa should focus on getting more parents involved with their neighborhood schools. That would encourage pride of ownership, he said, giving parents more responsibility for their child’s education.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.

For more information …

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District Number One, U.S. Supreme Court, June 2007: