Bus to Nowhere

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

After two decades of mindless body-shuffling, in the last couple of years the state and the school district finally began responding to conditions in San Francisco schools in ways that made sense. They tried to reduce class sizes and limit cross-town busing, among other things. But a bureaucratic tangle of financial and legal constraints has brought those responses to a halt. The legal-political paralysis that allowed San Francisco to sail so far off educational course now stands in the way of changes that might put the city's public schools back on course.

The current problems at the San Francisco Unified School District are complex and vastly different than those the district faced when African-American parents from Bayview-Hunters Point filed their desegregation lawsuit in the late 1970s. Now, low-skill, high-pay jobs are disappearing; affordable housing is scarce or nonexistent; immigrant children are illiterate in multiple languages; and a blanket of gang violence and drugs has fallen over much of San Francisco's inner city.

These are problems that decades-old court rulings and governmental responses to them can't address.

There is racial injustice in 1997, and it still affects schoolchildren. Now, though, that injustice is felt in dismantled minority communities, where kids have to travel across town to school and parents are prevented from participating in their children's education. Injustice surrounds the 4,000 children of the Tenderloin, who will get a neighborhood school only after eight years of political campaigning, and even then may not be able to attend it. Most of all, injustice falls on San Francisco's African-American and Latino children, who have less chance to succeed in life because the courts, the state, and the school district have, together, created and sustained an educational system that is utterly incompetent at delivering quality education to the underprivileged.

Neighborhood schools are no panacea, and building more of them will not instantly raise the test scores of San Francisco's poorest schoolchildren.

But the district's own schools argue in favor of neighborhood education. Anecdotal evidence and standardized tests both suggest that many children who attend school close to home learn more and perform better than children who do not.

"Ideally, parents want their children to go to school in their neighborhood," says Mary Beth Wallace, a staff liaison with the parent advocacy arm of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. "Kids are close to home, they get to know their community."

"It's really hard to take kids from Bayview, ship them to Lick Middle School an hour away in Noe Valley, and expect the same outcome as if they were going to school in their neighborhood," she says. "Everybody wants the 65,000 kids in this school district to achieve. That consent decree was supposed to do that. It doesn't seem to be working with what they do now."

There are other ways to begin untangling the Gordian knot of a desegregation decree that now strangles San Francisco public education. Although no school district in America has done a perfect job of providing both racial equity and quality education, some districts -- many of them, ironically, in the South -- have found innovative ways to improve schools and end court-mandated integration schemes that were disserving students. Some of those districts moved schools, so surrounding neighborhoods would be naturally racially balanced and busing would not be needed; others have broken up school districts to reduce the amount of busing required to achieve rough racial balance.

The most successful responses to desegregation orders have involved specialized "magnet" programs. Such a magnet -- for example, a program that provides advanced training in the performing arts -- would draw an ethnic mix of students from across the city. But magnet programs sit inside regular schools, and those schools also serve kids from their surrounding neighborhoods. Racial balance comes voluntarily, even as a neighborhood school is strengthened.

To be sure, a federal court monitors the San Francisco school district for compliance with a consent decree that carries the weight of law. There is no guarantee that the court would agree to consider significant changes in city desegregation efforts that might -- or, admittedly, might not -- improve education of minority students. And in the short run, it will remain less politically risky for the school board to leave the desegregation issue alone, letting the court dictate education programs, as it has for years.

But hiding behind the federal court and the 1983 desegregation decree is not likely to be a long-term option for the San Francisco School Board. The tide has turned. The U.S. Supreme Court and federal district courts have overturned desegregation orders across the country. The counter-desegregation lawsuit has been filed. If the school district doesn't step up to the plate with a better plan for progressing toward racial and educational equity soon, board members may find themselves facing a new court order -- one even less pleasant than the one entered some 14 years ago.

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