Bill would end Iowa school districts’ voluntary diversity plans

Scavo High School art students paint a mural at the Des Moines Public Schools Transportation building. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

An Iowa law aimed at desegregating schools by restricting wealthier students from leaving low-income districts may be eliminated in favor of giving more school choice for families.

Senate File 119 would eliminate “voluntary diversity” plans that five low-income districts use to restrict higher-earning families from enrolling out students. Schools that qualify for a diversity plan have 20% of students or more receiving free or reduced lunch.

State Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said the bill would give families in the West Liberty, Postville, Waterloo, Davenport and Des Moines districts the same choice as parents in other Iowa communities.

“I’ve been contacted by many parents over the years that were denied,” Zaun said, referencing the Des Moines school district. “Some of the reasons I heard were downright obnoxious.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said diversity in schools is important and said there are consequences to segregating low-income students and leaving them with fewer resources.

He said all students perform better when there is more economic diversity in their schools.

“This is just a very gentle restriction on income distribution to try to keep the people in the community together, so there would be a greater sense of community going forward, not only within the education system, but also in the broader community,” Quirmbach said. “The sense that we’re all in this together.”

The Senate Education Committee passed the bill on a party-line vote, with Republicans in favor and Democrats against. Lawmakers tried to approve similar legislation in 2018 and 2019.