A proposal in the Iowa Legislature would stop school districts like Davenport from denying open enrollment requests based on preserving diversity.
The legislation, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate, would eliminate diversity as grounds for denying open enrollment requests.
Critics say the bill could lead to more segregation in the schools. But proponents say parents ought to have a choice where to educate their kids.
The legislation would affect only five districts that have diversity plans. Davenport is one of them. The district's plan takes the position that a diverse district, "better prepares students to live in a global society."
The plan defines two student groups, based on whether they quality for free or reduced cost lunches or receive a fee waiver. Currently, about 65 percent of students are on free or reduced lunches or get fee waivers. About 35 percent don't.
The district's plan aims to maintain that balance, granting approvals in each category to leave the district only in the same number as applications to enter it.
Over the past five years, Davenport has approved 226 requests to open enroll to another district, while denying 390. Sixty-one requests to open enroll into the district were received and all were approved.
In the 2017-2018 school year, 109 requests to leave were denied, all based on the diversity plan. Only 16 requests to enroll outside the district were approved.
Davenport Superintendent Art Tate says if the legislative proposals were to pass there would be even more requests to leave, and it would have a significant impact on the district budget and its student makeup.
"That would be devastating to our diversity picture," he said.
Supporters of the legislation say families who live in districts like Davenport's ought to have the same opportunity as other families in the state.
"We should provide as many options as possible, and this is one of those," said Drew Klein, Iowa director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. The group has registered in favor of the proposal.
Klein says those who are worried about privileged families leaving districts should realize it's already happening. What's at issue, he says, is that families who can't afford to pick up and move are having their requests denied.
"These families are far from rich," he said.
It's not clear yet whether the legislation will move.
Senate Education Chair Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said this week that she still is studying the issue, but she is sympathetic to families who want to open enroll but can't because of the diversity plans.
In theory, she said, "It's not OK" that those students don't get the same rights as others.
Tate, who called this issue equally important as the fight to achieve equitable per pupil funding, says he understands the parents point of view. But he adds, "The ideal of having a diverse community overrides, in my estimation, their right to be open enrolled.”
Tate says it is good for students. "We believe that children sitting in classes with unlike students are going to profit," he said.
Over the last two years, about 30 percent of applications to leave the district have come from kindergarten students. In later grades, the number of applications decline.
Davenport already has a problem with falling enrollment. Tate says, if the legislation were to pass, there would be a lot more requests to leave than there are now.
Currently, he says, people know their chances of gaining approval to open enroll out of the district are, "pretty slim."
Davenport does not track the race of students filing open enrollment requests. But there is a correlation between race and economic status, though the district says its concerns are about economic isolation.
Nearly 90 percent of black students and 77 percent of Hispanic pupils in the Davenport district are in the free or reduced lunch program or qualify for fee waivers, while only 48 percent of white students are, according to the district.
Davenport's diversity plan, which has been amended a number of times over the years, grew out of efforts years ago to desegregate schools. It was revised after a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting schools basing plans to integrate schools solely or primarily based on race. The most recent amendments to the Davenport diversity plan were made in 2016.
The other districts in the state with diversity plans are Des Moines, Waterloo, Postville and West Liberty, according to the state education department.
(Erin Murphy contributed to this report)