Bus to Nowhere

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

The revenue squeeze Prop. 13 brought to public education created an odd unintended consequence: As part of the consent decree, every year the S.F. school district receives $35 million in desegregation funds from the state. Proposition 13 and the state's continuing budget constraints made the consent decree money crucial to the school district budget. Any move to end the desegregation order, or even risk a new plan, suddenly became extremely financially unappealing.

Now, there's another lawsuit alleging discrimination in San Francisco's schools. This one was filed in 1994 by a group of Chinese parents who allege that their children are unfairly victimized by the district's enrollment plan. The suit, which seeks to unravel the 1983 consent decree and is still pending in federal court, has brought national attention to Lowell High School, the city's premier academic alternative school.

Students must take an admission exam to be considered for Lowell. The lawsuit alleges discrimination against Chinese students who were required to score higher than other ethnic groups on the entrance exam to gain admittance, because the Chinese students wanted to enroll in numbers higher than the court-mandated ethnic cap.

But the case also complains that Chinese children are being unfairly prevented from attending school near their homes. Chinatown has wanted its children to attend neighborhood schools for a long time. But so have a lot of other San Francisco neighborhoods.

Margaret Wells' office is so regularly filled with so many complaining people that it has been given an entire building at the San Francisco Unified School District headquarters. On a March afternoon, a line of people stretches far back from the office counter. This is not an unusual state of affairs.

From her nearby office, Wells presides over the most complicated and emotionally charged division of the public education system in San Francisco -- student placement. The student placement office is the headquarters of confrontation, begging, pleading, testing, and crisis. It is the center of the storm.

Since the mid-1970s, the San Francisco Unified School District has operated under an open enrollment plan. Initially, the plan was operated on a first-come, first-served basis, but that method of school selection went by the wayside several years ago; parents were camping out for days preceding the start of school, creating scenes akin to those that surround the purchase of tickets for major rock 'n' roll concerts.

Now, open enrollment means that parents are allowed to select and rank three schools they would like their children to attend. That information, along with home address, ethnicity, and a few other details, goes into a computer that assigns children to public schools.

Those assignments are made randomly, within certain constraints. School space is, of course, limited; the city's "best" schools could never accommodate all the students who want to attend them. Also, a federal court order prescribes that there be at least four of nine "official" ethnic groups in each school, and that no one ethnic group represent more than 45 percent of the students in a "regular" school, or 40 percent in an "alternative" school. (Alternative schools feature special academic programs and transportation services designed to attract students from all over the city.)

All children attending San Francisco schools are labeled as one of the following: African-American, Latino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American Indian, Filipino, "other white," or "other non-white," a growing category that lumps together Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Samoan, and everyone else who doesn't have his or her own category. Children of multiethnic heritage must declare allegiance to one racial tag or the other.

"We've had a lot of arguments at the counter with parents over that," Wells says.

The following school district policy is testament to the level of racial silliness that has arisen over the years in response to the federal decree: Parents may change their child's ethnicity once, but must prove that the new ethnic identity is valid.

There are waiting lists and appeals. Parents shopping for private schools will wait to see what the school district computer offers their kids; if the public school choice is unsatisfactory, the parents go private -- but not before their children take up "space" in public school that might have gone to someone else.

The district's computer enrollment formula does give priority to children who want to attend neighborhood schools. But those schools still must meet the court's ethnic caps. Moving to a neighborhood where you want your child to attend school is, therefore, not necessarily helpful; the school may be "capped out" with students of the same race as your child.

The giant computer school-assigning run and placement process is under way for the fall semester of 1997. Historically, 35 percent of the students applying to school in San Francisco do not get any of their three choices of school each year. This year, that number is expected to be even higher because of space limitations.

And every child who does not get one of his or her choices will be assigned to another, to which he or she will probably be bused.

Chinese children living in Chinatown or the Sunset have the worst odds of attending neighborhood schools. Latino children who live in the Mission also are likely to be disappointed. Together, Chinese and Latino students compose more than half of the school district's student population.

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