Des Moines Board Refuses To Let White Students Transfer

By Peter Schmidt — December 16, 1992 3 min read

In a move that has drawn fire from Gov. Terry E. Branstad and other Iowa officials, the Des Moines school board has refused to allow about 120 white students to transfer out of the district under the state’s open-enrollment law.

The board this fall gave six minority applicants permission to transfer out, but refused to allow 122 white students to shift to public schools in other districts. The loss of the students would have hindered the district’s efforts to desegregate its schools, the panel contended.

Gary L. Wegenke, the superintendent of the Des Moines district, last week said the board also denied the transfers because they would have caused the loss of state funds that the district needs to operate programs for at-risk students.

The state has largely ignored the negative impact of open enrollment on Des Moines and similar districts, Mr. Wegenke said. “What the board did was to take drastic action in order to get the attention of public officials,’' he added.

Governor Branstad gave the issue statewide attention late last month when he accused the Des Moines district of “reverse discrimination’’ and dismissed its suggestion that the open-enrollment law needs to be changed.

“The whole idea of open enrollment was to give people a choice,’' said Mr. Branstad, disputing the Des Moines board’s claim that the loss of the white students would significantly alter the district’s racial balance.

A state education department official last week said more than 20 appeals had been filed before the state board of education on behalf of students denied transfers out of Des Moines.

Officials of districts that would have received the students also criticized the Des Moines board’s stance.

“Very frankly, we were very surprised at the board’s action in Des Moines,’' said Dale L. Grabinski, the superintendent of the nearby West Des Moines school district. Mr. Grabinski accused Des Moines of violating state law by “arbitrarily’’ denying transfers to white students.

Transfers Costly to District

With a total enrollment of about 31,500 students, the Des Moines district is the largest in Iowa. Enrollment is about 12 percent black, 5 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, and 0.5 percent Native American.

In its first two years under the open-enrollment law, Des Moines took in 134 students from other districts, while losing 413 students of its own. Because state funds follow transferring students to their new district, the results for Des Moines were net losses of about $333,000 last year and $950,000 this year, district officials said.

If the district had given its approval to all of the 128 additional students who wished to transfer out next year, Superintendent Wegenke estimated, its total loss in state funds would have been about $1.4 million.

“The kinds of programs that get hurt when you have that kind of money leave the district are the programs that try to help students that are at risk of failing school or dropping out,’' said Mark A. Horstmeyer, a spokesman for the district.

Although the open-enrollment law was intended, in part, to give minority students an opportunity to transfer out of Des Moines and other urban districts, minority students accounted for just 11 of the 413 students who have left Des Moines so far, Mr. Wegenke said.

“When we look at reasons why people leave, proximity to district borders is one of the main reasons,’' Mr. Wegenke said.

“A lot of minorities do not live in proximity to those border lines’’ and lack the transportation to make longer trips, Mr. Wegenke said.

Mr. Horstmeyer said the difficulties brought upon Des Moines by the law have complicated its efforts to implement its own open-enrollment plan, which allows students to attend any school within the district so long as space is available and segregation will not result.

Des Moines officials last week were seeking to meet with the Governor to encourage changes in the law, but Mr. Branstad has said the law is fair and does not need to be changed.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Des Moines Board Refuses To Let White Students Transfer