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.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Hope, Bowles Notwithstanding

Last Fall, when the school integration cases were fully briefed, I willed myself to believe that the Court would surprise us with a 7-2 decision -- nay, a 9-0 sweep! -- upholding the student assignment plans in both Louisville and Seattle. You realists may scoff, but I say this: Put aside all of the mechanics and details of the two plans for a moment. It is true that opponents of voluntary integration have simplistic, sound-bite formalism on their side -- you can't use race to segregate, they say, so you can't use race to integrate. Period. There is appeal to this kind of position, I admit. But for the reflective, deliberate thinker, the person willing to engage in, wrestle with, and reconcile the history and the relevant case law, such formalism strikes me as hollow and disingenuous. By every measure -- moral, historical, philosophical, and jurisprudential -- it seems to me that the only right and honest interpretation of the Constitution you can reach is one that permits public school systems to adopt voluntary integration policies. Period. Indeed, exclamation mark!

So, my view in the Fall had been that justice would prevail. These cases were way too big, way too important for the Court to fumble at the goal line. It's 2007 -- we are more than 50 years beyond Brown. Even if the Court were to cabin its ruling in a way that greatly limited the ability of public school systems to engage in voluntary integration, I simply could not bring myself to believe that it would deny us even the Pyrrhic victory of some flowery language, right? Justice O'Connor realized the importance lip service in Grutter, the relevant portions of which even Justice Kennedy joined. Surely Justice Roberts (rumored to be the author of the forthcoming majority opinion) is not looking to go down in history as the man who finally put Brown to rest.

Besides, I saw no reason in hanging my head before there was a certain reason to do so. You have to believe. What do those of us standing on the sidelines have at this point, if not hope?

I must confess, the Court is doing all it can to steal even this glimmer hope. Many expected the Court would issue its decision on the voluntary integration cases this past Thursday -- it didn't, but it sure has heck did issue a zinger of a ruling in Bowles v. Russell. A 5-4 decision (usual suspects), Bowles held that a habeas petitioner's appeal, which was filed within the time afforded to him by a federal district court order, was appropriately denied by the Sixth Circuit because, as it turns out, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (Rule 4(a)(6), to be exact) actually allowed him three fewer days to file than the court's order did. Thank you for your notice of appeal, Mr. Bowles; you complied with the order, but we will not be able to afford you any review.

Bowles couldn't have actually held that, could it? Having read the opinions, I cannot quite say that either the facts or the legal analysis gave me much insight into the minds of Justice Thomas and his colleagues in the majority, and what they believed is to be accomplished by denying Mr. Bowles an opportunity to be heard based on his and his lawyers' reliance on a federal district court order. The majority opinion often returned to the idea that it was Congress, not the courts, who created these jurisdictional rules, and thus Congress, and not the courts, who must be petitioned to make them more just. "If rigorous rules like the one applied today are thought to be inequitable," writes Justice Thomas, "Congress may authorize courts to promulgate rules that excuse compliance with the statutory time limits" (emphasis mine).

But this abdication of authority -- the suggestion that the Court's hands are tied because Congress and only Congress has the ability to modify jurisdictional requirements -- strikes me as a bit disingenuous when, in the same breath, Justice Thomas dismisses with the back of his hand an argument grounded in the "unique circumstances" doctrine, which could very well have provided the Court a basis for granting relief. After reviewing the case law discussing unique circumstances, he states: "We see no compelling reason to resurrect the doctrine from its 40-year slumber. Accordingly, we reject Bowles’ reliance on the doctrine, and we overrule [two Supreme Court decisions] to the extent they purport to authorize an exception to a jurisdictional rule." Sounds like it was a fielder's choice to me.

In the end, the legal issues raised in Bowles were not very complicated. The real question was where the sympathies of the Justices lie. Justice Souter's dissent summed it up like this:

"The District Court told petitioner Keith Bowles that his notice of appeal was due on February 27, 2004. He filed a notice of appeal on February 26, only to be told that he was too late because his deadline had actually been February 24. It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for condoning this bait and switch."

Intolerable? Yes. Bait-and-switch? You bet. But is it the law? It is now.

You might be wondering what Bowles has to do with voluntary school integration. Well, perhaps (and hopefully) nothing, but for me, the take-away is this: Many had previously speculated that, with Justices Roberts and Alito, there is a new, more solidified and emboldened majority on the Court. I had been reluctant to jump to any conclusions, holding out hope that the experts would be proven wrong. I endured many other of the closely-watched decisions of this term strongly suggesting that my hold-out was futile, but for some reason, it was Bowles that pushed me over the edge. Yes, we are indeed witnessing a shift even further right. George W. Bush has gotten what he wanted. Uncle.

But, that said, until we get the final word on Louisville and Seattle, I shall maintain hope. The promise -- even if not yet the reality -- of racially and ethnically integrated quality public schools has become part of the fabric of this nation, and not without long decades of struggle, sacrifice, violence. Whatever their political stripe, the Justices, I must believe, know this, indeed, lived through this. So, until I'm proven wrong, I'll continue to believe that their opinions will recognize and do justice to this history, and to the future.

Besides, what do we have, if not hope?


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

At Risk: The Power of Local School Districts to Avoid the Harmful Effects of Racial Isolation

A recent article, posted on the American Constitution Society blog, explains how the Supreme Court cases from Seattle and Louisville could undermine local school districts' voluntary efforts to combat segregation.

You can find the article here.


Desegregation Dollars

Later this month, the U.S. Mint is making available for purchase special silver dollar coins commemorating the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, and celebrating the nine brave students who "faced the violence and hatred of a segregated society" and took "an important step in the country’s quest for racial equality in public education." Let's hope that the Supreme Court also honors the sacrifice made by those young pioneers in furtherance of that quest, and recognizes that their dreams are yet unfulfilled. We've got a long way to go, and while the coin is a beautiful tribute, a court decision would be worth more.


Opponents of School Integration Plans Misread Brown v. Board of Education

Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Goodwin Liu, a Berkeley Law Professor, describes how opponents of the Seattle and Louisville school integration plans are misreading Brown v. Board of Education to stand for the notion that the Constitution is colorblind. In his article, Liu explains that Brown, "did not establish colorblindness as a legal principle" and that there is "no constitutional equivalence between race-conscious efforts to segregate and race-conscious efforts to integrate public schools."

Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote in a 2006 dissent that,“It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race,” appears not to appreciate the importance of educational diversity in an increasingly diverse world. In this article, Liu explains how both the U.S. Government (arguing that Brown, "held that intentionally classifying students on the basis of race violates the equal protection clause") and the Chief Justice ("liken[ing] the children in Seattle and Louisville to the children in Brown because 'they're being assigned on the basis of their race'") appear to miss the point of Brown--namely, that "racial apartheid has no place in public schools or elsewhere in public life."

To read Professor Liu's article, entitled, "The Meaning of Brown vs. the Board," click here.


Study Reveals that All Students Learn More in Integrated Schools

In "Lost Learning, Forgotten Promises," Douglas Harris found that:

  1. Minority students learn more in integrated schools.
  2. Racial integration improves the equity of learning outcomes in general as well as in the Louisville and Seattle districts that are the subjects of the Supreme Court case.

More specifically, Harris found that:

  • African Americans and Hispanics learn more in integrated schools. Minorities attending integrated schools also perform better in college attendance and employment.
  • Controlled choice and other forms of desegregation benefit minority students.
  • Racial integration is a rare case where an educational policy appears to improve educational equity at little financial cost.

This report is especially noteworthy because of its exhaustive analysis. Harris explained that, "Using test score information required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the study analyzes the effects of segregation in more than 22,000 schools across the country that enroll more than 18 million students. Most previous studies on the subject have included no more than a few thousand students, making this study arguably the largest ever conducted on the effects of segregation."

While the link to the full report is above, you can find a summary here.


Monday, June 11, 2007

"Thurgood Marshall Must be Spinning in his Grave"

In a November 29, 2006 Washington Post column ("A Slide Toward Segregation"), Ruth Marcus explained how, "A half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, it's come, amazingly, to this: The Supreme Court, in the name of preventing race discrimination, is being asked to stop local schools from voluntarily adopting plans to promote integration. . . .Thurgood Marshall must be spinning in his grave." To read the column in full, click here.


"Leaving Integration Behind"

Click here for an article published on, providing a historical discussion of school desegregation, No Child Left Behind, and the "decades-long good faith efforts of many school districts to promote meaningful integration in their schools."


Transcript of Century Foundation Discussion on the Future of School Integration

Click here for the edited transcript of a Century Foundation event entitled, "The Future of School Integration: Race, Class, and the U.S. Supreme Court."

  • The discussion features: Theodore M. Shaw (Director-Counsel and President, NAACP Legal Defense Fund), Roger Clegg (President and General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity), Richard Kahlenberg (Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation), Patt Todd (Director of Student Assignments, Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville) and Kathy Slobogin (Managing Editor of CNN Presents and Event Moderator).


Summary of Amicus Briefs in Support of School Districts

Click here for a summary of the 50 amicus briefs filed in support of the school districts in the Seattle and Louisville school integration cases.


Can Integrated Schools Fight Crime?

For anyone who's been following the voluntary school desegregation fight, the oft-repeated message from the Louisville and Seattle school districts and their supporters is no doubt familiar: a diverse student body is an important educational tool for teaching tolerance, cultural competence, and practice dealing with people from different backgrounds in the real world. As important as all of these skills are, their relative intangibility can make them hard to appreciate; their complex role in measurably improving test scores or college or job prospects can make them seem like a luxury rather than a necessity. According to law enforcement experts, however, integrated schools provide more than an education in interacting with others. For many Black and Latino students, an integrated school may be their best shot at getting an education at all.

Studies have shown that whether or not a student attends a racially-isolated school with a high concentration of minority students is a good predictor of whether that student will drop out or graduate. While the overall graduation rate nationwide is 68%, students in segregated urban school districts such as Oakland, CA, and Cleveland, OH have graduation rates of only 30%. Meanwhile, in school districts like St. Louis, MO, where segregated schools contribute to the below average Black graduation rate of 60%, a voluntary integration program has raised African-American rates of graduation in two participating schools to 87% and an astounding 100%. Beyond graduation, minority students who attend integrated schools are also much more likely to go on to attend college as well.

At the same time, whether or not a student completes high school is in turn a good predictor of whether or not a young person will become involved in crime. High school dropouts account for a majority of the nation's prisoners, and a third of all male high school dropouts will have spent some time in prison before they turn 25. The median income for high school graduates is close to double the median income for those who did not finish high school, due in part to the fact that high school dropouts face much higher rates of unemployment. Students who have attended college are even less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to have well-paying jobs. Research shows that increasing the average level of education by only one year can reduce arrests by as much as 11%. In these cases, it is not only the students who benefit -- a mere 1% increase in high school graduation rates in 1990 might have saved 400 victims of murder in that year alone. Society as a whole pays the costs of this preventable violence, both in money -- processing offenders through the court system and housing them in correctional facilities -- and in lives.

To learn more about education and crime prevention, go to


Racial Diversity's Major League Benefits

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, an event now widely accepted as having profoundly changed not only the face of baseball and professional sports in America, but the course of the civil rights movement as well. Before the military or the nation's public schools were forcibly desegregated by law, the Dodgers' voluntary signing of Robinson signaled that black players were as skilled and valuable as white players, but more importantly, that the national pastime could no longer function divided with players by race into different leagues. Robinson proved his worth immediately with a stellar season, hitting .297, playing more games and scoring more runs than any other Dodger, stealing more bases than any other player in the National League, and being named Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News. His performance ushered in a wave of other black players on other teams the following season, with the effects of baseball's integration spreading to the National Football League, which began recruiting African-American players by the late 1940's, and the National Basketball Association, which recruited African-American basketball players from college from the days of its inception in 1949.

Robinson's success affected far more than the fates of other black athletes, however. During his first season, the Dodgers played to sold-out stadiums where ever they traveled, with Chicago's Wrigley Field packing in 47,000 fans -- 10,000 more than maximum capacity -- when the Dodgers came to visit. By the end of the season, Robinson had helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to the National League pennant and helped the Dodgers set a new attendance record, drawing over 1.8 million fans—the highest single-season attendance in history atEbbets Field. Robinson’s presence and popularity also drove the total attendance for the National League above ten million fans—the highest single-season total to that date. Robinson’s success on the field and at the turnstiles demonstrated beyond any doubt to millions of Americans that African-American players were capable of competing with and working in harmony with the Caucasian players in the Major Leagues.

That the integration of baseball had such an overwhelmingly positive effect not only on black players, but on the popularity and level of competition of the sport as well was much of the reason that the Dodgers voluntary inclusion of Robinson was so monumental. Baseball was the most universally embraced sport in America at the time, and Robinson's highly visible presence was a powerful catalyst in the larger battle for equal opportunity and civil rights. At the same time, athletes on the newly integrated teams and their fans were getting the chance to interact with people of a different race, and finding the experience to be illuminating. As African-American player Ed Charles noted, "It gave us a chance to know each other better. Once you get to know someone, you’re not going to feel as threatened...Any forum that brings people together can lift the cloud of ignorance from all of us." It also brought millions of Americans of different racial backgrounds together across National League cities, in person and in spirit, to root for the same team of players and to learn that they could co-exist with fellow citizens across the color line.

Local communities such as Louisville and Seattle are hoping to harness this same potential in their voluntary integration plans. Children who go to school with one another may share the joys and challenges of growing up, learning, working and playing to an even greater degree than teammates on the field. Additionally, integrated schools bring about integrated sports teams. Like their professional counterparts, student-athletes in integrated settings tend to display a higher level of academic, professional, and athletic success, as well as showing greater levels of teamwork, racial tolerance, and achievement both on and off the field.

Reflecting on the unique power of sports to foster tolerance and multiculturalism, the NCAA states that "Numerous studies have found that sports provide key social contexts for students of different backgrounds to interact “(1) as equals, (2) in a cooperative way, and (3) with shared goals." Of course, integrated elementary, middle, and high schools as a whole provide very similar opportunities for children, as illustrated by the following quote from social scientist T.F.Pettigrew, and cited by the NCAA: "The athletic arena is a domain that requires positive group-based interactions in order for team members to experience success, and in fact is one of the few realms in which all of the essential conditions for reducing prejudice are met. Specifically, the contact occurs between individuals with equalized status in the situation, the contact entails purposeful activity toward common goals fostering interdependence, the contact is cooperative, and the contact is socially sanctioned." The athletic arena is certainly a realm in which all of these conditions are met, but I can think of another.

For more information on the importance of racial integration in sports, check out the NCAA amicus brief at


Briefing Paper on Seattle and Louisville Cases

Click here to view the Seattle and Louisville voluntary school integration cases briefing paper.


Fact Sheets for Seattle and Louisville Cases

For a fact sheet on the Louisville case (Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education), click here.

For a fact sheet on the Seattle case (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1), click here.


Background Information on Voluntary K-12 Integration

1) For a comprehensive manual on voluntary k-12 school integration, click here. This manual was designed for parents, educators, and advocates and provides:

  • Historical information on court-ordered desegregation, the contemporary resegregation crisis, and the importance of integrated schools and classrooms.
  • The kinds of student assignment strategies that districts have adopted to reduce racial and ethnic isolation and promote integration.
  • Information on how communities and schools can promote integration.
  • Frequently Asked Questions and links to additional resources.

2) Click here for a fact sheet describing how race-neutral school integration plans impact racial diversity. Generally, the fact sheet explains why race-neutral alternatives do not achieve racial diversity and details specific challenges faced by school districts using race-neutral alternatives.

  • For more detailed analyses of individual districts' experiences with race-neutral approaches to school integration, see the "SES/Alternative Approaches to School Integration " label.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

Kids SpeakOut! Contest Winners

In the sea of the voices weighing in on the topic of voluntary school integration, the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights still felt someone was missing: kids themselves. Several months ago, the Campaign launched an essay contest for school children on the topic of diversity in schools, hoping to get enough participation confirm the overwhelming implications of the battle in the courts on the everyday lives of students. The outpouring of student work was even larger than they had hoped: thousands of students wrote in, responding to the broad question of "Why Does Diversity Matter?" Writing about their own experiences with the dangers of isolation and the richness of many different kinds of cultural integration, the seven winners and finalists are eloquent ambassadors for those who will be most affected by the court's upcoming ruling.

My personal favorite is "Invisibility" by Kyle Mealand, a 16-year-old from Seattle, WA, whose own school system is at issue in the voluntary integration cases. Mealand, who bases his essay largely on his time spent in post-apartheid South Africa, conceives of segregation as a force for making entire communities invisible to one another. The implications of such group blindness are devastating to vulnerable or disenfranchised populations, and true communication in this environment is impossible.

To read his and the other winning essays, visit the Campaign's "Kids Speakout!" website.