Last spring, Cal graduate student Mandy Johnson wrote a paper looking at why parents picked certain schools in the choice-based San Francisco district.
Working at Cal’s Goldman School of Public Policy, Johnson analyzed the data from the 2006-07 school year. The two top factors correlated with high demand for a seat in a particular school were its academic performance and the availability of special classes like language immersion.
The top factors correlated with low demand were the prevalence of low-income students and—here’s the really troubling one—race. Specifically, Johnson found, “as the percentage of African American students in the school increases, kindergarten demand decreases.”
By the way, for those assuming this is something that can be explained away by the interplay of race and poverty, it isn’t. Johnson said she used a statistical tool called regression analysis, which allowed her to isolate factors such as income and skin color. For example, the researcher found no correlation between school choice and the number of Latino students, who are disproportionately lower-income.
Chris Rosenberg, principal of ethnically diverse Starr King Elementary, laid it out for me in clear terms.
“The bottom line is that many people do not feel comfortable sending their kids to a school with a lot of African American students,” says Rosenberg, who has been at Starr King for 12 years, four as principal. “It’s a crying shame. It’s terrible. But it is a sad and obvious truth in our schools. And no one wants to touch it.”
Actually, that’s not true. San Francisco school board President Mark Sanchez, who is a teacher, has decided to speak up. He read Johnson’s report and is attempting to use it as a way of starting a dialogue about something “our society doesn’t want to talk about.”
Sanchez isn’t just interested in this as a moral issue. There’s a practical matter, too. With African American families leaving San Francisco, schools are losing black students. But as Sanchez says, when students leave those predominantly black schools, “nobody is willing to fill those seats.” The result is that schools in minority neighborhoods are continually threatened with closure because they are losing enrollment.
In 1982, a federal consent decree required San Francisco Unified School District to fulfill racial ratios at each school. But in 1994, Chinese American families successfully sued to eliminate racial considerations. In 2005, the consent decree ended, and the district is now operating under a “choice-based” model, which allows families to rank their preferred schools and usually get one of their top two picks.
Although schools have responded with more programs and desirable amenities, racial balance has proved increasingly difficult to achieve. As Johnson says, “The district has two problems: Enrollment is going down, and segregation is going up.”
Skeptics will say we are exaggerating the problem. After all, it may not be racial. Who wants to send their kid to a school in a bad neighborhood? Rosenberg admits that Starr King is not far from the Potrero housing projects.
“I get a lot of questions from parents about safety,” says Rosenberg, a white man who majored in African American studies in college. “But John Yehall Chin Elementary (on Broadway) is a really good school with a lot of strip clubs around it. Do you think they get asked about safety? The fact is, people don’t care so much about the environment when it does not include black people.”
“One of the ways I would propose is that, if you go to an ethnically added school,” meaning one disproportionately black, “you would get points for going to college,” Sanchez says. “People would be beating down the doors to get in.”