Saturday, June 16, 2007

San Francisco’s Socioeconomic Desegregation Plan: A Touted Model, Worth Reexamining

San Francisco Unified School Districts (SFUSD) is often cited as an example of a school district that has successfully adopted a socioeconomic status based desegregation plan. Yet, the story of desegregation in San Francisco instead demonstrates how the reliance on socioeconomic factors fails to achieve racial desegregation.


As a result of litigation aimed at desegregating the San Francisco schools, the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, the SFUSD, and others entered into a consent decree in 1983. U.S. District Judge William Orrick approved the settlement prohibiting student enrollment more than 45 percent of a single racial or ethnic group at any school, requiring each school’s staff to reflect district-wide student racial and ethnic composition, and taking additional steps to desegregate 19 historically segregated schools.

The two central tenets of the consent decree were (i) to “eliminate racial/ethnic segregation or identifiably in any SFUSD school, program, or classroom and to achieve the broadest practicable distribution throughout the system of students for the racial and ethnic groups which compromise the enrollment” and (ii) to avoid disproportionately burdening any racial or ethnic group regarding transportation, special program site selection, and facility utilization.

By 1993, the desegregation goals had largely been achieved but academic performance gaps persisted for African American and Latino students. The decree was thus modified at that time, but the language stating that the decree was to eliminate segregation and avoid a disproportionate racial burden remained. Over time, the focus of the consent decree shifted from desegregation toward academic achievement.

In 1983, Judge Orrick stated that the major goal of the consent decree was to eliminate racial and ethnic segregation. By 1992, Professor Gary Orfield, an expert assisting the SFUSD, identified “two related goals” of the consent decree as desegregation and educational equity. By 1999, SFUSD Superintendent Waldemar Rojas defined the goal of the consent decree as “excellence for all,” based on a definition of “academic achievement” tied primarily to test scores.

In 2001, in response to a suit filed in 1994 by Chinese-American parents that race-based student assignments were no longer constitutional. The parties again modified the consent decree. Following settlement, race was deleted as a factor in assignment decisions, and socioeconomic status was substituted in its place.
In the wake of the 2001 settlement, SFUSD developed a five-year comprehensive plan to achieve educational equity, entitled “Excellence for All,” which included the diversity index concept. The diversity index considered non-racial factors in student assignment decisions such as socioeconomic status, academic achievement, English-language learner status, mother’s educational background, academic performance at prior school, home language, and geographic areas. The 2004 Department of Education report entitled “Achieving Diversity: Race-Neutral Alternatives in American Education” featured San Francisco as a model of the connection between socioeconomic integration and racial desegregation.

In 2005, U.S. District Judge William Alsup terminated the consent decree, stating that the involvement of the legal system absent the use of race as a factor may only be increasing segregation. Since 2001, when the consideration of race was eliminated, segregation in San Francisco schools sharply increased. Judge Alsup indicated that the district’s new system “has not achieved diversity in any meaningful sense” and instead “has allowed, if not caused, resegregation.” Indeed, Stuart Biegel, the consent decree monitor, found that the assignment decision absent racial considerations contributed to consistent and unabated resegregation from 1999 to 2005.

Furthermore, the academic achievement gap persisted when considered in assignment decisions for African-American and Latino children, and it was worst at segregated schools. Biegel noted that while SFUSD as a whole had the highest percentage of students scoring at proficient or above when compared with seven major urban districts in California, San Francisco’s African-American students scored the lowest overall when compared with their African-American counterparts in these same seven districts. Judge Alsup also noted that this academic achievement gap persisted for African American and Latino children.

The San Francisco model demonstrates the distinct lack of congruence between use of the diversity index factors and the goals of eliminating segregation and avoiding a disproportionate racial burden. In fact, the data exhibits a steady desegregation of the district schools with the consideration of race in assignment decisions, followed by a consistent resegregation upon the elimination of the consideration of race in assignment decisions.

It is interesting to note that Biegel cited the Louisville, Kentucky plan, described in McFarland v. Jefferson County Public Schools, as a possible model for refashioning San Francisco’s failed attempt to achieve continued racial desegregation using socioeconomic status. In the 2004 consent decree monitoring report, Biegel wrote that “the most successful plans appear to be those where geographical borders are delineated, diversity guidelines (including race) are established, and parents are given choices within those borders and guidelines…choices that are typically enhanced by the opportunity to also seek admission to a range of special schools with special programs.”

The SFUSD submitted an amicus brief with the Council of the Great City Schools in the McFarland v. Jefferson County Public Schools case before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that a student assignment plan may properly take account of race to further racially integrated schools. In fact, the brief cited San Francisco as an example where race-neutral alternatives are insufficient to achieve racial integration.

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