The problem with the Students First initiative


I'm not surprised that there's an initiative in circulation that would set this as city policy:

The proximity of a student’s home to the assigned school should be the highest priority in San Francisco Unified School District’s student assignment system.

For those of you who are new to San Francisco: To enroll a child in a San Francisco public school, parents apply to seven schools and then pray their child gets into one of them. Unless a child has a sibling at a particular school, he or she will be assigned based on a secret algorithm created by monkeys throwing darts (or something like that).

Actually, most people (about 80 percent) get at least one of their school choices. And yeah, the algorithm is a bit complicated. But there's a good reason why:

Many San Francisco neighborhoods are still racially segregated. Which means if everyone goes to his or her neigborhood school, we will have some schools at are 70 percent black, some that are 70 percent white and some that are 70 percent Asian. And that's a bad idea.

San Francisco fought for years to comply with a 1983 consent decree in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP. THe idea was to desegregate the schools; part of the process that was developed involved giving parents a choice (which many want) over where to sent their kids -- and a system for maintaining some degree of ethnic balance in the school. Subsequent litigation has made it almost impossible to use race as a factor in placing kids, so now the district uses a different system. Since we've stopped using race, the federal monitor reported five years ago on

the increasing resegregation prevalent in the District since 1999, and the parameters of an achievement gap that only became apparent over the past few years.


The district's making progress on a lot of fronts, but the achievement gap and segregation are still serious issues in the district. The other serious issue is resources: In an era when there's no public money, kids who go to schools where most of the parents are rich get better educational services. The parents raise money to pay for libraries, special classes, music, art, enrichment programs etc. Schools that have a demographic base that doesn't allow for extensive fundraising can't offer those programs to the students.

So ideally, you'd have a mix -- poor kids and rich kids in the same schools. Some of that has happened at McKinley Elementary, where my daughter is going into third grade and my son just finished fifth. There are better-off families who contribute and raise money, people with financial connections who get grants etc. -- and that benefits the majority of the kids, who come from lower-income families.

Actually, ideally you'd have fair property taxes, and every kid in every school would get enough tax money to thrive. But you get the point.

So this "neighborhood schools" rhetoric sounds good. But until we desegregate the neighborhoods -- and change the distribution of wealth -- it just ain't gonna work. The system we have is imperfect -- but it's certainly better than what it could be if we just send everyone to school where they live.