Bus to Nowhere

Why San Francisco's Byzantine school desegregation program systematically fails the children it was designed to help

But Ryan and Sarah and many of the other children who wait for buses on gritty street corners of the Tenderloin each weekday morning may not get to attend the new neighborhood school.

The Tenderloin school will accommodate less than half of the elementary school children who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Ethnic quotas imposed by a federal court desegregation decree signed 14 years ago could require that students from other areas of the city be bused to the Tenderloin school, even as Tenderloin kids are shipped across town to other schools.

This long-distance, race-based shuffling of children continues year after year in San Francisco, even though educators know it is dismantling communities and harming the children it is meant to help. This stupid, expensive shuffle continues because political, bureaucratic, legal, and monetary factors have made schooling here much more a matter of space and race and politics than of teaching children the things they need to know.

Do your homework. Play well with others. Share. Give everyone a turn. Don't cheat. Help your neighbor. These are lessons that every child should learn by the end of the first grade.

For years, though, the adults who run San Francisco's public education system have failed to follow these elementary prescriptions. The city's educational system has grown so illogically complex and politically polluted that, most objective indices show, it shamefully fails to educate the children for whom its intricate, expensive, politically sensitive framework supposedly was designed.

The calamity inside San Francisco public education has monetary and legal roots.

The state of California has failed to meet the most basic needs of students -- classrooms and teachers -- because of structural financing problems. There are not enough schools to serve children near where they live, and there is no apparent source of funding to build new ones. And there hasn't been any significant new money since Proposition 13 put the brakes on property tax spending for schools two decades ago.

Meanwhile, legal responses to past segregation problems have separated children from the neighborhoods -- and the family support systems -- necessary to successful education. In theory, parents can choose which schools their children attend. In fact, a computer program scatters schoolkids across San Francisco, based on their race and other demographic factors that have nothing to do with learning.

Many parents have never been to the schools their kids attend. Many of those schools have no extended-day programs, because such programs would not mesh with cross-town busing schedules.

Educators know the current system disserves children and could be improved with a few straightforward policy changes, but the San Francisco Unified School District is immobilized in a web of legal, political, moral, and financial obligation. The adults responsible for public education seem to have forgotten another important lesson that all children should learn early and remember throughout life: You are never excused until you have cleaned up the mess you made.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its sanctioning of "separate but equal" public schools and ended legal segregation in education with the landmark case of Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Clearly, the court ruled, separate had never been equal in American public schools.

The integration debate came to San Francisco in 1978, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of African-American parents against the San Francisco Unified School District. The schools in Bayview-Hunters Point were abysmal. The children who attended them -- almost all of whom were African-American -- were failing.

The parents won.
The case ended in a consent decree -- that is, a plan agreed upon by both sides to address the segregation problem in S.F. schools. The court made the plan official, and told the state to pay for it.

A flurry of new academic programs, rebuilt and enhanced schools, new staff, and additional busing followed. Children from Bayview-Hunters Point were given priority in school preference. But by the mid-1980s, the academic part of the desegregation plan had lost steam and focus.

The district was keeping a body count, but paid little regard to what the bodies were or were not learning.

And over the years, while the court continued to monitor the situation and as children continued to do poorly in school, the consent decree was tinkered with time and again. Eventually, the decree specified what programs would go in which schools, who would be hired to run the programs, where those employees would be put, and what would be done if and when the programs and associated people didn't work.

By 1992, the school district had so failed to achieve the educational goals of the consent decree -- specifically, the improvement of education for African-American and Latino children -- that the court called for the "reconstitution" of schools that were failing to make the grade. Reconstitution, as it's applied in San Francisco, essentially means replacing the entire staff of a school from the principal to the janitor.

About the time that the NAACP called the school district on the carpet for segregation, California voters approved what would be a devastating blow to schools -- Prop. 13, the infamous initiative that capped property tax spending and left school districts holding their cup out to the state for money. The measure forced a $7 billion cut in local property taxes, the largest source of revenue for school districts and the primary funding mechanism for capital improvements for schools.

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