Judge Puts End to Court’s Role in Desegregation of City Schools

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 9

A federal judge ordered a halt Tuesday to 22 years of court supervision over San Francisco schools’ desegregation policies, saying the involvement of the legal system may only be increasing segregation.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup rejected requests by the San Francisco Unified School District, the NAACP and a group of Chinese American parents to extend by 18 months a court order, known as a consent decree, that governs school assignments.

The order, first signed in 1983 to settle a suit that accused the district of policies that segregated African American and white children, is due to expire at the end of this year. Alsup’s ruling leaves school assignments in the hands of the elected school board and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who plans to retire in June.

“What is best for the children of San Francisco should be left to the professionals in the district, subject to the voices of all in the community,” the judge wrote.

He said the schools are now laboring under “court-ordered resegregation” under a revised system, negotiated by opposing community groups and the district in 2001, that prohibited the use of race in school assignments and substituted socioeconomic status. The proposal to extend the consent decree would have locked the current system in place for at least another year, Alsup said.

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The experience since 2001, reflected in Alsup’s ruling, shows that the schools must take students’ race into account in order to desegregate, said school board member Dan Kelly. He said a ruling last month by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding the use of race as part of a voluntary integration plan in Seattle, would strengthen the case for a similar program in San Francisco.

“We still have a moral and legal obligation to integrate our schools,” said Kelly, who hopes to win passage of a new plan for the fall of 2006. “In some ways the process is made simpler by not having to go to a court for approval.”

But David Levine, a lawyer for Chinese American parents whose 1994 lawsuit eliminated the district’s consideration of race in school assignments, said any renewed use of race would violate both the U.S. Constitution and California’s Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that banned racial preferences by state and local governments.

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The 1983 consent decree took children’s race into account in school assignments and limited enrollment at each school to 45 percent of any single racial or ethnic group.

Alsup said it worked so well that as of 1997-98, only one school in the city was segregated, with a single racial or ethnic group making up more than half the students. By contrast, he said, 35 percent of the schools are segregated today.

The watershed event was the renegotiating of the consent decree in 2001 in response to the lawsuit filed seven years earlier by Chinese American parents, who said their children’s rights were violated by rules that capped their enrollment at the district’s most desirable schools. Chinese American students made up less than 20 percent of the district in 1983 but are now the largest single group, at 32.1 percent.

Their suit relied on U.S. Supreme Court rulings that took an increasingly dim view of race-conscious school assignments and court supervision of local schools. U.S. District Judge William Orrick cited those rulings in his 1999 decision that said the consent decree was likely to be found unconstitutional.

The 2001 decree, which is still in effect, barred use of race in school assignments and instead established a “diversity index”—based on factors including poverty, language and family background—that was supposed to foster continued desegregation.

Alsup, who took over the case after Orrick’s retirement in 2002, said Tuesday that the district’s new system “has not achieved diversity in any meaningful sense” and instead “has allowed, if not fostered, resegregation.”

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