Desegregate our schools

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By Matt Haney

OPINION

Sixty years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education, we face the shocking reality that our nation's schools are more racially and economically segregated today than they have been in more than four decades.

The vast majority of public school students attend schools where students look like them and share their socioeconomic background. Even areas where significant progress has been made are experiencing resegregation, including here in San Francisco.

For over 20 years, 1983-2005, San Francisco schools were under a federal court-ordered consent decree to eliminate segregation and accelerate racial equity, including a controversial assignment policy that limited enrollment of any ethnic group to no more than 45 percent in any school.

This policy ended after it was found unconstitutional in 2001. Since then, San Francisco schools have experienced a steady resegregation. A quarter of our schools have more than 60 percent of a single ethnic group, even though the district is highly diverse and lacks a majority group.

After three years of a new student assignment system, despite holding the reduction of racial isolation as a central goal, there has been little change. In the face of neighborhood segregation and displacement, family request patterns, language pathways, and elimination of school buses, our current student assignment system, absent additional interventions, may be outmatched in addressing this challenge.

Thus, 60 years after Brown, we must ask ourselves the question: Is racial and economic integration still a priority? And what does this mean for our ability to provide educational opportunity for all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status?

While Brown is best known for helping end legalized segregation and sparking the Civil Rights Movement, Brown's foundational premise is that all students have a right to educational opportunity.

In San Francisco, as in other cities, racial isolation and concentration of underserved students in the same school are highly correlated with other school factors that define school quality, including average years of teacher service, teacher turnover, attendance, and suspension rates. San Francisco's most racially isolated and underserved schools are, thus, also those that are the most persistently low achieving.

As daunting as it may seem, there are things we can do now to restore the promise of Brown.

First, we should acknowledge that establishing racially and economically diverse schools still matters, and draw on creative and intentional tools at our disposal to work towards them. Segregated schools should not be accepted as a foregone conclusion, particularly in light of the well-documented challenges of ensuring educational opportunity in these contexts. We should look to diverse school models here in San Francisco, especially those where parental involvement is central.

Second, we must be honest about the resources needed to ensure equal opportunity for every student, particularly those in racially and economically segregated schools. This will take much more than small reforms or even equalizing funding; in fact, San Francisco has long had a system where schools with higher needs are given additional funding.

Ensuring true opportunity for every student in racially isolated schools requires transformation of what schools look like in these contexts, including longer school days, much smaller classes, high quality early childhood education and after school programs, experienced and highly paid teachers, and full-service school health clinics.