On Guard: Why do parents choose segregation? 

click to enlarge A recent newspaper report said 60 percent of San Francisco’s schools have a simple majority of one racial group, with 25 percent having 60 percent of students of a racial group. - CINDY CHEW/2008 S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Cindy Chew/2008 S.F. Examiner file photo
  • A recent newspaper report said 60 percent of San Francisco’s schools have a simple majority of one racial group, with 25 percent having 60 percent of students of a racial group.

A new report shows a shameful truth for our city: San Francisco's schools are segregated.

The San Francisco Public Press, a local nonprofit newspaper, reported that out of San Francisco Unified School District's 115 schools, six in 10 have simple majorities of one racial group. Alarmingly, a quarter of district schools have 60 percent or more students of one racial group.

The report notes how black students in The City attend mostly black schools, white children attend mostly white schools and so on.

And with segregation of race comes segregation of money.

With those demographics, white parents of conscience face a dilemma: Will they choose to racially (and economically) reintegrate schools with their own children, but perhaps sacrifice some education quality, or put their children into the best schools and further segregate the system?

"I think what we discovered is that choice is not effective as a desegregation mechanism," said Rachel Norton, an SFUSD Board of Education commissioner. And increased parent choice in schools is how the district got to this point in the first place, the Public Press found.

The U.S. fought hard for integration. Nearly 50 years ago, about 1,000 black children marched in Birmingham, Ala., to integrate schools. They braved police dogs and fire hoses for a simple truth: Separate is not equal.

That holds true in San Francisco today.

Public Press' report is complex, and I won't recount all of its nuances here. The main takeaway is that white families in San Francisco have more money and political influence, which raises the quality of their schools. When they flock to a handful of top-tier public and private schools, brown and black students are deprived of resources those affluent families bring.

When I asked if there is separate and unequal education in the district, SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said the question, "conveys a gross simplification of a very complex issue."

But the Public Press' reporting showed white flight can be fairly framed as resource flight.

The rich do better, the poor do worse in a constantly perpetuating cycle. Though 33 percent of children in San Francisco are white, only 12 percent of SFUSD kids are white.

"This was one of the hardest decisions we ever made as a couple, how to educate our kids," local parent Bonnie Preston told The San Francisco Examiner. A self-identified political progressive, she and her family are white and consider themselves upper-middle class.

Diversity was important to Preston, but so was an environment where her son could learn. Studies commissioned by the SFUSD show students learning in diverse classrooms are more racially tolerant and improve learning outcomes for students across the board.

But when it came time to apply for the school lottery (which depends on tiered priorities, not a random drawing), she wasn't offered the schools she felt would help her son achieve.

Preston said it was frustrating knowing dwindling state resources make it hard for public schools to compete with private ones.

She and her husband toured Washington High School and met a history teacher who hammered home the system's inequity. In his classroom, "a ceiling tile was ripped and hanging down. When the teacher broke to talk to us on the tour, he said 'I leave this hole in the ceiling to remind these children that no one cares,'" which he meant to describe lack of school funding statewide.

"I thought that was pretty telling," she said. After Preston put her son in a private elementary school, he graduated from the private Marin Academy three years ago.

As Preston pointed out, the public schools her son was told he could attend weren't as attractive as the private schools she could afford.

The Board of Education is keenly aware of this.

Commissioners Sandra Lee Fewer and Norton are introducing a resolution in April to boost the school-choice priority of students in their own neighborhoods, hoping recently diversifying San Francisco neighborhoods will diversify their schools as well. Language immersion programs may also lure those white families back into the system, they suggested.

"That means investing," Norton said.

But it may be years, or decades, before political forces in The City and the state can restore funding to public schools to entice white, affluent families back into the system.

And that funding would be easier to attain if those families attended those schools already, because they would likely fight for more funding, officials said.

So in a perverse flip of Alabama circa 1963, city schools need some white families, and families of affluence, to cross the segregation line willingly.

Would you put your child in a school with less means knowing you could help improve schools in The City?

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

This story has been changed from its print version.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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