Last week, the Spokane Public Schools board of directors examined and revised a draft of its proposed "equity policy," which states that the school district "values diverse schools and communities and is committed to providing excellence for everyone."
About an hour later, the same board approved a school boundary proposal that some experts argue will hamper the district's racial equity goals by reducing diversity in its schools.
"To be an equity-based organization, which Spokane Public Schools declared they would be last year, that means you have to be not thinking about privileged students but thinking about marginalized students and how to decrease opportunity gaps for them," says Suzie Henning, an assistant professor of education at Eastern Washington University. "This seems to be moving in the other direction."
The school boundary proposal has stirred a debate around what equity means in a district with high rates of low-income students. Historically, school districts across the country have drawn attendance zones in ways that separate students by race and class. Advocates have pushed for districts to "desegregate" these schools, with research backing up the idea that having schools with more socioeconomic diversity can benefit disadvantaged students.
But the new Spokane school boundaries, like the old ones, will leave Spokane schools on the north end of town with consistently higher rates of students on free or reduced lunch than the southside schools.
Noticeably, as the more affluent Lewis and Clark High School will see its percentage of low-income students drop, North Central High School's rate of low-income students in its attendance zone will jump by more than 10 percentage points. Students in the new Denny Yasuhara Middle School boundary in northeast Spokane, meanwhile, will have a free or reduced lunch rate of nearly 90 percent, while the new South Hill middle school, Carla Peperzak Middle School, will have less than a third of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"If we're talking about equity, I can't think of a more equitable thing to do than to ensure you don't have schools in your district that are high-poverty schools," says Stefan Lallinger, an education fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York.
The school board, however, argues that simply distributing low-income students evenly across the district isn't the answer. Busing children out of their neighborhood school would create logistical issues and would disproportionately harm poor children, they say.
The district considered it important to prioritize boundaries that can keep students within the same cohort throughout their education. To reduce poverty rates in some schools, the district will continue to allow families to attend schools outside their zone if they choose, and the district will add so-called "magnet" programs to northside schools that may attract wealthier students.
"We have to be very mindful and careful in how we create diverse schools, diverse communities and diverse neighborhoods," says school board president Jerrall Haynes. "I think narrowing down the work strictly to boundaries and focusing on balance, to me, is not where the equity lies."
"If we're talking about equity, I can't think of a more equitable thing to do than to ensure you don't have schools in your district that are high-poverty schools."
A year ago, the Spokane school board passed a "racial equity" resolution that promised transformational change in local schools and began the process of creating an "equity policy."
But since then, board member Nikki Lockwood says members of the community have "weaponized" equity against the board. Supporters of a proposal to put a new sports stadium downtown, for example, argued it was the most equitable approach — but Lockwood thought they were just adopting the term when they actually meant the location allowed equal access for students.
For Lockwood, equity isn't providing equal support or resources for everyone. It means recognizing that certain students or schools need more support based on their unique circumstances.
That's why she feels the boundary changes are in line with the district's equity goals. The board approved the boundary changes on the condition that special "magnet" programs will be created at the lower-income northside high schools. It's an approach Spokane is modeling after Seattle Public Schools, which reconfigured its boundaries in the last 15 years while adding special programs at lower-performing schools.
North Central High School already has a program like that. Its Institute of Science and Technology has attracted students from all over the district, and that's helped lower the free or reduced lunch rate by 5 percent.
Lockwood also points to Rogers High School. It has the highest concentration of low-income students in the district, but its graduation rate has soared in the last decade.
"Equity is really about serving the kids that are there," Lockwood says. "And I think individually and at the school level, that's not going away when we make this boundary choice."
The school district had not changed its boundaries in 40 years, but it was forced to because of the addition of three new middle schools constructed as part of a plan to shift sixth-graders to those schools. Spokane Public Schools formed a boundary committee a year and a half ago to study how to adjust the boundaries.
Associate superintendent Mark Anderson says equity was a central part of the discussion during the committee's process. The research they leaned on showed the importance of keeping students cohorted to make for easier transitions to middle school or high school, he says. For instance, he says it's better to keep Marshallese students in the same cohort instead of spreading them out away from their support group.
With few exceptions, the new boundaries don't significantly alter the existing socioeconomic makeup of schools. The widening gap in poverty rates and racial diversity between North Central and Lewis and Clark, however, was a major exception. Haynes says that was discussed at "great length" among the boundary committee.
"Ultimately, what it came down to for the boundary committee was that we didn't design our city. We didn't design our neighborhood," Haynes says. "These differences do exist, but what other ways can we create more diversity within our schools?"
Haynes strongly pushes back against the idea that the school board didn't prioritize equity in the boundary discussion.
"I find it fascinating. Especially that this board — the most diverse board in Spokane Public Schools history, the board that created the equity resolution and has realistically been leading equity conversations throughout the entire county in Spokane — is being accused of not leading with equity in mind," Haynes says.
Henning, the EWU assistant professor, supports the district's effort to let families have the ability to choose schools outside their boundary. But Henning, who has a background in culturally responsive teaching, is skeptical that boundaries keeping kids together in the same schools will create an equitable system.
The research on the cohort model, as it's called, is mixed. That's because students can become "lassoed" — privileged students may succeed with other privileged students, but disadvantaged students are kept in the same population with other disadvantaged students and unable to succeed.
"And then they're sent through the public school system with those disadvantages year after year after year," Henning says.
Studies have shown that low-income students attending more affluent schools have higher test scores than those in high-poverty schools. More socioeconomic diversity in schools has also been linked to higher graduation rates, as noted by Lallinger with the Century Foundation.
"You can't just throw your hands up and say we're going to reproduce the segregation that exists in our housing," he says.
Instead, the school district should say "we are going to do our damndest to try and create a school system with a socioeconomically diverse student population because we know it's best for kids. We know that's backed up with research," Lallinger says.
Haynes has suggested that balancing socioeconomic diversity across Spokane schools is not feasible because it would require "mass busing," to which Lallinger has said other districts around the country have figured out strategic transportation solutions.
Henning says she's been "thrilled" with the direction the school board has taken recently, but she called the boundary decision a "shocker."
"You can say it: 'I am practicing equity,'" Henning says. "But how are you doing it?"
Before approving the boundary changes last week, board member Mike Wiser acknowledged the criticism that the new boundaries will create less socioeconomically diverse schools. But he argued that making substantial changes now would require starting from scratch.
And the critics of the process, he says, haven't come up with any better solutions. Ultimately, he feels the equity concerns can be addressed "programmatically."
Board member Jenny Slagle, who has been the most reluctant to vote for the boundary changes because of the equity concerns, eventually came around to vote for the proposal for similar reasons.
"I don't believe there's ever been a time that the Spokane Public Schools board has been so focused on all facets of equity," Slagle says.
Just before final approval, Haynes added that once the decision is made, the district can "roll up our sleeves and get to the real work."
As for the critics of the process, Haynes says he appreciates that the community is engaged on topics like this.
"We're trying to build a truly equitable system here. And a part of that is making sure this system is consistently held accountable moving forward," Haynes says. "We ask that you continue to hold us accountable on every decision moving forward also. That's what will keep our system healthy." ♦