Posted on May 30, 2006

With More Choice Has Come Resegregation

Leslie Fulbright and Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 2006

A school-assignment system established in 2001 to give San Francisco parents more choice has resegregated many schools across San Francisco.

After years of warnings that the assignment system was unsuccessful in its attempt to comply with a court order mandating integrated schools, the Board of Education now wants to fix that problem without angering parents of all ethnicities who want good schools close to home.

Many parents have made it clear that they will flee to private schools or the suburbs if they don’t get a public school they like, but school board members have said that having segregated schools is indefensible.

The seven elected board members now have the unenviable task of balancing these dueling interests. No longer subject to court-ordered desegregation after 23 years, board members say they are determined to address the problem of resegregated schools by creating a new student-assignment system.

Board members say they hope to have a new plan in place by August and use it for the first time in the 2007-08 school year.

“The board has to make a huge decision. They’re asking all the right questions, and some of the answers are mutually exclusive,” said Ruth Grabowski, who runs the Parent Advisory Council to the school board. “There are so many different possible solutions. The issues are heartbreaking to me.”

The district has been coping with segregation since the 1970s, when the NAACP sued the school district, saying African American and Latino students were not getting an equal education. In a 1982 settlement, the district agreed that no school would have more than 45 percent from one ethnicity and that each school would be represented by at least four ethnic groups. The district achieved this by assigning students to schools and busing some across the city.

Court challenge

This system, in turn, was challenged in 1994 when Chinese American families sued the district in a case called Ho vs. San Francisco Unified, saying their children were being kept out of their preferred schools simply because of their ethnicity. By the time the Ho case was settled in 1999, African Americans had dwindled to about 10,000, or 16 percent of enrollment, and Chinese Americans had become the largest group, with more than 18,000 students, or 28 percent.

This school year, 32 percent of San Francisco Unified students are Chinese American, 9 percent from other Asian groups (Filipino, Japanese American and Korean American), 13 percent African American, 22 percent Latino, 9 percent white and 12 percent from other nonwhite groups, district data shows. By comparison, San Francisco’s whole school-age population was 44 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 12 percent black, 23 percent white and 19 percent Latino of any race in 2003, according to a U.S. census estimate.

The 1999 settlement forbade the use of race in school assignments, and two years later the district created a “diversity index” to comply. The index assigns students based on social and economic factors but not race. Those factors are poverty, mother’s education, English skill, home language and academic performance of the student’s previous school. Parents submit a wish list of up to seven schools, and if there’s space, their child will get into one of those schools without being subjected to the diversity index.

But the district has applied the diversity index only at schools with too many enrollment requests. So while the system has increased choices for parents, it has also resegregated dozens of schools, especially in poor neighborhoods.

The number of racially identifiable public schools in San Francisco has jumped by two-thirds in the past four years, according to the last annual report of Stuart Biegel, the UCLA professor appointed to monitor the district’s desegregation efforts until the court order expired in December.

Biegel found that in close to 50 of the district’s 113 schools, 60 percent or more of students in any grade were from a single racial or ethnic group. The district, he said, had undergone “severe resegregation.”


Omar Khalif, who is a candidate for school board in November, lives in Bayview-Hunters Point and has four daughters.

Khalif said he’s so happy he’s “over the moon” with the education his girls are receiving in neighborhood schools and thinks busing to integrate schools is overrated. Two of his daughters attended a middle school across town for a while, but he said the family felt unwelcome and the girls’ grades suffered.

“Some African American families are choosing schools on the west side because they have good test scores — what, do they think their children will learn by osmosis?” he said.

If school districts around the country still haven’t figured out how to develop integrated, high-performing schools for children of all races more than a half-century after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing “separate but equal” education, they probably never will, Khalif said.

“How have you not figured it out after 50 years?” Khalif asked. “We’ve developed the Internet. We’ve sent people to the moon, and we can’t figure this one out.”