IOWA CITY – The Iowa City school district’s attorney says the Iowa Department of Education is contradicting its own rules in its opposition to the district's diversity policy.
The attorney, Joe Holland, said given how the district’s diversity policy is written, state rules seem to require the district use free or reduced-price lunch data. Free-reduced lunch is the basis of the policy, but the state and federal governments have said how the district would use it would violate federal law.
Holland’s questions and comments are laid out in a five-page letter dated Feb. 14 that was sent to Darlene Sanchez of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service’s Mountain Plains Office. He asked Sanchez for further clarification on the regulations surrounding the district's diversity policy.
Holland’s office hand delivered a copy of the letter to The Gazette late Friday afternoon.
The diversity policy, which a divided Iowa City school board approved earlier this month, requires the use of free or reduced-price lunch rates to try to achieve better socioeconomic balance across the district’s schools.
The vote came a few days after the Iowa Department of Education, in consultation with the USDA, said the policy would potentially allow students in the free-reduced lunch program to be identified without permission from their parents, which would violate federal law.
The Iowa Department of Education restated its position in a letter to the school district this week, although state and federal officials said they hoped alternatives would help the district achieve similar goals.
An option suggested by the state was to use census data on income levels.
But Holland, in his letter to Sanchez, writes that doing so would violate the state’s own rules.
The section of the Iowa Administrative Code dealing with school diversity plans says that plans can define a “minority student” by using socioeconomic status, and it says socioeconomic status “shall be measured by whether a student or the student’s family meets the financial eligibility criteria for free meals or reduced price meals offered under the Child Nutrition Program.”
The Iowa City school district’s diversity policy defines minority students as those receiving free-reduced lunch. State rules prohibit the district's use of census data, Holland wrote to Sanchez.
“Obviously you can see we have contradictory information from the Iowa DE (Department of Education) which has Rules on the matter, but sent a letter directing the District to act contrary to those Rules,” Holland wrote.
An Iowa Department of Education spokesman did not immediately return a phone message left late Friday afternoon.
Holland also said the district is not clear on what information federal law allows the district to use. He said the National School Lunch Act addresses the release of individual free-reduced lunch data and the statute is “phrased in the singular." Supporters of the school district’s diversity policy say aggregate data would be used.
Holland cited federal code that says a local education agency “may disclose aggregate information” without parental notification and consent as long as children cannot be identified.
The Iowa Department of Education has not forbid the use of aggregate data, but it said it believes the district’s policy could lead to the identification of children.
“An example of this would be when the aggregate group is too small or the group percentage is very high,” the Iowa Department of Education’s Ann Feilmann wrote in a letter to school district Superintendent Stephen Murley this week.
As The Gazette has previously reported, a handful of Iowa school districts already have diversity plans, and those use socio-economic status and free-reduced lunch. The state has said the difference is the Iowa City school district’s policy covers students districtwide, whereas those existing plans apply only to open enrollment and transfer students, and parents make those requests.
Holland wrote that he would be responding to the state’s letter and asked for clarification from the USDA on state and federal rules.