Justice and School Redistricting

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2010. “Seeking justice in redistricting scenarios.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (March 10): 11A.

We in the Iowa City area have been debating the merits of the School District’s various scenarios for redistricting our schools. For a fleeting moment it also appeared as though the Iowa City Council would consider whether to adopt an inclusionary zoning ordinance for new housing developments. The two topics are related, and both are intimately connected with our ongoing discussion about the southeast side of town. All three ask, what is the right thing to do? All three compel us to think about justice.

Like many of you, I already have fairly strong ideas about what I think should be done. Wanting to challenge my own inclinations, however, I decided to find out what wiser people have had to say. For help I turned to Michael Sandel’s new book, Justice.

Sandel considers three broad approaches to justice: Welfare, Freedom, and Virtue. The first argues that justice consists of maximizing utility or welfare, often measured in monetary terms. If we could measure and aggregate individual utility (perhaps by using test scores), then justice would mean adopting a redistricting plan that would produce the highest District-wide average score. True, some parents and students might be inconvenienced by having to bypass their neighborhood schools and attend more distant ones. But that would be okay because the collective benefit would outweigh the costs.

The Freedom approach emphasizes that not all values and goods can be reduced to a single metric. According to it, certain rights are so fundamental that they should not be violated even if the overall collective benefit would be reduced. There are two variants: Libertarian and Fairness. Free-market libertarians believe that justice consists of respecting and upholding the voluntary choices made by consenting adults, especially choices made in free markets. Fairness advocates counter that markets are neither free nor just. For them, justice requires policies that remedy social and economic disadvantages and give everyone a fair chance at success. If none of us knew what our starting position would be (in terms of wealth, race, etc.), we would voluntarily prefer such policies.

If we evaluated the ICCSD’s scenarios in terms of the Libertarian conception, we would probably want to begin by dismantling the public school system, or at least by enabling private educational firms to compete with the public schools. If we evaluated the scenarios in terms of the Fairness conception, we would target resources toward improving the education of students who are least advantaged. Some might object that this would handicap or penalize the most talented and hardest working students, but a Fairness advocate would reply that such students’ capacities are influenced by contingencies for which they can claim no credit.

The Virtue conception of justice emphasizes that making people happy differs from making them good. Rejecting the notion that we are free-floating individuals, it would recognize that we have obligations that arise from the communities and traditions that have shaped our identities. Consequently, a Virtue approach to justice would cultivate, reward, and honor the attitudes, dispositions, and qualities of character upon which a good society depends. It would enable people to reason together about what constitutes the common good, to develop practical wisdom, and to care for the fate of the community as a whole. And it would improve the common spaces of shared citizenship, including public schools.

If we evaluated the District’s scenarios in terms of Virtue, we would prefer the alternative that best enabled students (and their parents) to contribute to the greater good of the Iowa City area as a whole. This would, I think, require changing how the District decides where to build new schools. It would also require rethinking how new subdivisions are built. In both cases, new schools and neighborhoods would have to be co-designed so as to comprise walkable mixed-use and mixed-income neighborhoods in which life outside the school was understood to be a vital component of education within the school.

Maximize welfare, respect freedom or promote virtue? Which standard of justice should we apply to the important questions we face in the here and now? What do you think?

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