What does Chuck Nevius want?


I'm not sure even Freud could answer that question, particularly re: his latest Chron column, which seems to be complaining that middle-class families don't get a fair shake in the school lottery.

Nevius tells the tale of a couple who lost out in the school-choice lottery. It happens; I know that, because it happened to me. When my son was headed for kindergarten, we carefully chose seven schools we liked, and when the computer was done, we got none of them.

We also went through the second round, and wound up with a wonderful school, McKinley, that has been perfect for our kids. When we first got there, six years ago, it wasn't considered a "top" school, one of the ones that everyone applies to; now, thanks to a dedicated staff and increasing parent involvement, McKinley's on everyone's list.

But that's a different story. What Nevius says is this:

The system is a wildly confusing method of allowing parents to choose the school for their children while also attempting to encourage diversity. Parents need to pick schools they'd like to attend. But the system factors in diversity, whether their child went to preschool and a family's income. A new system will be implemented next year that should be an improvement, but there is still considerable confusion.


At issue is the fact that San Francisco continues to lose families with children, many of whom are middle-class, two-income, motivated parents who could make a huge difference in struggling schools.

"How can you have a healthy city when families are constantly leaving?" asked Todd David, who headed up a group of about 30 families from the Jewish Community Center preschool who all "went 0-7" last year. Two-thirds of them, David says, ended up at a private school.

Actually, I'm not sure the new system next year will be an improvement; it won't for me. It's based too much on keeping kids in their neighborhoods -- which means if, by chance, the middle school in your neighborhood isn't right for your kid, you're SOL. And I'll admit, the current system isn't perfect -- but what I want to know, as someone who has studied this and thought about it and written about it and argued about it for six years now, is this:

What's the C.W. Nevius plan? What system would be more fair that what we have now? Because he hasn't offered an alternative.

There are three essential problems that the SF school district faces:

1. There's not enough money. Nowhere near enough money. So not every school is going to have every facility and program that's perfect for every kid.

2. The city is still racially and socioeconomically segregated, so if every kid goes strictly to a neighborhood school (the plan some parents in more upscale areas want) you will have decidedly segregated (illegal) and even more unequal (unfair) schools.

3. Some parent want to stick to their neighborhood schools, but most parents also want a choice. Not every elementary school has Spanish or Chinese immersion; some parents really want that. Not every middle school has a GATE or honors program; some parents really want that. And, frankly, some schools are better than others, and while the ultimate goal is to improve all the schools for all the kids, see (1.) above. And parents want the right to choose a "better" school.

Since the Supreme Court says the district can't use race as a factor in creating diversity, there has to be something else -- and SFUSD has, properly, added in socioeconomic indicators that aren't just race-based, like the educational level of the mother. Since not everyone can get into the most popular schools, there has to be some kind of lottery. Add in factor (3.), and you get a situation that's almost impossible to solve in a way that makes everyone happy.

Particularly since there are bound to be some families who don't get what they want.

I think the district is telling the truth when the folks there say that the vast majority of San Francisco families get one of their seven choices (around 80 percent, last time I checked). That's not perfect, but it's not awful. Some of those who don't get the school of their choice will flee for private schools, and that sucks, since the district needs more enrollment and more engaged parents. (Others will stick with the system and work to improve the schools they do get -- and I can tell you from experience, that works.)

But I keep coming back to the basic situation:

1. We can't allow segregated schools, and we don't want to.

2. The school district can't change the demographics of the city.

3. There's no way to make this work without a lottery and

4. No lottery is going to be perfect.

I don't love the current situation; my solution is to repeal Prop. 13 (at least on commercial property) and double the per-student funding. Then this wouldn't be an issue.

What's the Nevius plan? Dunno; I asked him, and all he said was that he plans to follow up. We're all waiting for your brilliance, Chuck. 



Much as I agree that middle-class families ought to be encouraged to stick with the SF public schools, I don't think you can give "the middle class" a special break in the lottery. How would that work -- a reverse means test? If you're a two-income professional couple you get to go ahead of a single mom on the list?

Posted by tim on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 11:18 am

I think you hit the nail on the head, when you said "No lottery is going to be perfect", I am pretty pissed at SFUSD, but if I am not happy some one else would be. I think the answer is more money and as most people in SF are not parents, Kids are a low priority to the Mayor and Supervisors. Parents who are unhappy put their kids in Private schools or leave the district; 3 in 10 SF kids are in private schools so diversity is lost. I don't think there is a good solution.
I would argue that "The city is still racially and socioeconomically segregated" is incorrect, I think we all live cheek to jowl here, in the short walk my 4 year old and I take to pre-school we pass some very expensive houses, then down through the tenderloin.

Posted by Chris Pratt on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 11:38 am

What planet are you living on? Of course we are economically segregated. Families from Pac. Heights do not mix with the Bayshore. Please be real here.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

The DPRK has many lessons to teach us on the joys of enforced egalitarianism. That's about the only nation I can think of that doesn't allow self-selection on the basis of economic means.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

It's not hard for parents to turn around a school. The leaders jump in, build up parent involvement, and before long you have a really great school.

The sheep will always follow.

It happened at McKinley, Sherman, Grattan, etc.,

Middle-class parents want to send their kids to public schools. But most of them want somebody else to be the pioneer. To take the first steps. They want to play "Follow the Leader."

Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 12:30 pm
Posted by Guest on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

The left likes to cite root causes for things, for example they talk about root causes of why people hate the USA, the root causes of why people commit crime, why there are unions, they like to talk about the root causes of just about everything but prop 13.

Posted by matlock on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 1:14 pm


Posted by Guest on Sep. 22, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

The question I always have is how do other cities handle school assignment? I never read about kids living in San Jose, Berkeley, etc. being trucked across town to go to a school to satisfy multi-factored lottery results. Might happen, I just don't know. And if a better comparison is high density cities, how do cities like New York or Boston handle school assignment? Anyone know?

I do think there is something to be said for kids going to school in their own neighborhoods. I get it that the argument against is that rich people will move to neighborhoods with better schools, but doesn't that happen already with rich people moving out to Palo Alto, Piedmont, Orinda, etc.? In a city of renters, are the barriers to entry for moving neighborhoods all that high? Putting aside the arguments on either side, the system sounds broken given the number of families with kids who seem to be moving out of the city if they can't afford private schools. My solution would be to have a lottery based on numerous factors, but the neighborhood where the kid lives would be by far the most important one.

I recognize the point of people expressing the sentiment that parents should accept the lottery choice they're given then work with other parents, the school, etc. to build up the school and make it better. The problem I see with this point is that it takes some time and I doubt parents want to wait around for a school to turn around while their kid is only school-age for so long.

To Tim's solution, I don't think repealing Prop 13 is realistic. Polls always seem to be in heavy favor of Prop 13. Even if it only applied to commercial property, I fear people see the words "Prop 13" and think any erosion of it will lead to it eventually be repealed as to residential property two.

Finally and for FYIY, I realize the commenters on SFGate are often criticized, but I thought there were some interesting comments to Nevius' column today. Sure sounded like a lot of middle class people moved out of the city because they thought the school system let them down and wasn't good for their kids.

Posted by Patrick on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

Yeah, people move out of town because they "think the school system isn't good enough for their kids." They're wrong. San Francisco has some excellent public schools. And if these parents were willing to give some of them a try -- and make the effort that it takes to improve your local school -- they'd find that the time they spend commuting to the city vastly exceeds the time it would take them to have a great experience right here in SF. 

Posted by tim on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

thinks otherwise.

Posted by matlock on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

And since Glen brings it up, let's remember: If we repealed Prop. 13, everyone's taxes wouldn't suddenly double and triple. Local officials, as part of the budget process, would set property tax rates. If the rates were too high, you could vote those folks out. We'd just have the flexibility to fund the schools properly.

Posted by tim on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

...says it all

Posted by Guest on Sep. 22, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

I agree some of the schools are excellent, in fact I would say the majority are good; I would be very happy to send my child to one of these. However there are some schools where parents are disinterested and the work to change the school will take years of effort. If you are forced to go to one of the "failing schools" then you make a decision, try and turn it around or move. Some times you have to be pragmatic.

Look at the McKinley parents reaction to being a feeder school for Everett, and these are motivated parents who have made a great success of McKinley.

Posted by Chris Pratt on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

here in the SFBG's threads isn't going to be echoed next November at the ballot box.

Isn't it ironic that progressives, who's very name means "progress" and hence "change" are in San Francisco the most resistant to those very notions? Ask public employees to contribute a small amount to their own pensions (something private sector workers have been doing for decades)? Progressives are against it. Allow neighborhood schools to once again flourish in San Francisco the same way they have been doing in NY, Seattle and Portland for generations? Progressives are against it. Clean up the old Navy shipyard and redevelop the squalor and alleviate poverty in the surrounding neighborhoods? Progressives are against it.

It's Alice in Wonderland up in here - where change and progress are anathema by the dead-enders at the Guardian.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

Lucretia Snapple, it's not true that neighborhood schools have been flourishing happily in NYC, Portland and Seattle for generations. Different situations in different cities, but all of them have undergone and are undergoing some kind of turbulence involving questions of diversity, the challenges faced by schools that serve a critical mass of high-need, at-risk students, and more. Please stop repeating that claim, because it's not true.

Patrick, it's true that we hardly read about what goes on in other cities -- for some reason, the discussion tends to behave as though SFUSD exists in a vacuum. In reality, the discussion SHOULD address other cities, best practices, what works elsewhere and what doesn't, etc. As a veteran SFUSD parent and advocate, I've tried to follow these issues -- and it's hard, which of course is why that much detail never appears in the press either.

As to the cities you mention -- sprawling San Jose is actually divided up into multiple school districts, which means less diversity but less assignment hassle. It also means multiple administrations; doesn't seem totally practical. Berkeley is a very small district but still has indeed had issues about busing and assignment for years. Boston has years of turbulent, even violent, and very racist history of turmoil over court-ordered busing, but I don't know what its current situation is. NYC's enrollment process is so complicated no one can follow it; makes SFUSD's look refreshingly simple.

Frankly, quite a few middle-class families move out of the city out of ignorance (they "heard" the schools were bad), fear (of you-know-who) or sheer racism. Some flee for multiple reasons -- an easy enrollment process, schools with no pesky poor dark-skinned kids, parking AND sunshine... Chuck Nevius, of course, moved to lily-white Walnut Creek for the schools.

I think it's fair to say that the barriers to low-income families are pretty high in terms of moving into "better" neighborhoods. So the other argument about mandatory neighborhood schools is that schools that serve a critical mass of low-income, high-need, at-risk kids become overwhelmed; those are the struggling (or "failing," a term that I think is an ugly slam on the entire school community and should be banished) schools we hear about. Those schools tend to be in the lowest-income neighborhoods -- Mission, Bayview, Viz Valley. With a mandatory neighborhood assignment system, the most vulnerable kids have access only to those most struggling schools. As you can see, a more equitable system offers them access to higher-functioning schools.

There's a magical-thinking notion held by the uninformed that if children in low-income neighborhoods are required to attend the neighborhood school, the school will miraculously bloom because people will be so committed and yada yada. I am a supporter of the "Community Schools" concept, in which schools are centers of their community and are filled with programs and services supporting the whole family rather than closing up tight after school -- but even the tiniest dose of reality shows us that neighborhood schools in struggling neighborhoods do not magically bloom. Instead, they tend to, surprise, struggle, or "fail." The schools currently identified as "failing" in SFUSD are all schools in low-income neighborhoods that serve the students in the neighborhood, so we don't exactly have to look far to see that.

SFUSD has just revamped the system so it will operate pretty much like this: "My solution would be to have a lottery based on numerous factors, but the neighborhood where the kid lives would be by far the most important one."

I agree that *repealing* Prop. 13 is not realistic, but dismantling it piece by piece is not so farfetched. One key piece was removed in 2000, in Prop. 39, which cut the former 2/3 requirement to pass bond measure to 55%. Other pieces that need to be dismantled are the 2/3 requirement to pass the budget in the legislature, the 2/3 requirement to pass a local property tax, and the fact that Prop. 13 also covers corporate property, not just Grandma's house.

The polls in heavy favor of Prop. 13 are misleading though, and here's why: Most people in California today really have very little notion of what it even is/was. Prop. 13 was passed in June 1978 -- to actually have voted in that election, you'd have to have been born in June 1960 or before AND have been living in California at the time. (That describes me, but anyone else reading this? Odds are probably not.) When pollsters ask Californians their opinion of Prop. 13, a large number have no idea what they're talking about; the pollster reads them a brief description of Prop. 13 and asks their opinion on the spot based on something they only heard that very minute. That's obviously unsound and invalid polling methodology. For a blog I used to do, I interviewed Field pollster Mark DiCamillo, and that's what he told me (including sending me the description). I think that a truly ethically pure pollster would actually tell the client that it was impossible to achieve a sound result because so few people had any knowledge of the topic -- but then they wouldn't get paid -- so you get the idea.

Then the press parrots the claim that X number of Californians support Prop. 13, which reinforces the notion that it's untouchable, and you get the idea. (And anyone in the press who parrots the line that Prop. 13 is "the third rail" need to have HACK tattooed across his/her forehead, or needs to clean toilets in the local elementary school as penance for mindless hackery.)

Posted by CarolineSF on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

supervisors after the polling of its citizens took off the ballot its ideas for taxing the citizens further.

State wide there is a fairly popular movement to address the pay and benefits of city and state workers.

I would be inclined to think that releasing the states kleptocrats to have further taxing authority would be a loser.

Posted by matlock on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

Yes, it is true. I'm a product of the Portland Public School District and have lived in Manhattan as well. So I'm speaking from experience. And where you got the idea that "challenges" mean a school district is operating poorly is beyond me. All districts have "challenges" and experience "turbulence" at one point or another - it's how they handle those challenges which marks their success or not.

You and I are not going to come to agreement on this issue. You've staked your position clearly - which is you're in favor of the current system. I am not. That's really all there is to it.

But I agree with you on Prop 13.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

Unless you're under about 25, you are a product of the Portland public schools in a different era; and living in New York without having kids in public school does not give you insight into how school enrollment operates. (If you lived in New York and were a public school parent there, I'd like to hear more.)

I'm part of a nationwide network of public school activists and could trot out some NYC activists, like Woody Allen trotting out Marshall McLuhan in "Annie Hall," but no matter.

I am not inherently in favor of the current system. It's not perfect. We are waiting and seeing on the new, redesigned system that is just being implemented, which I support.

What I'm opposed to are simplistic magical-thinking solutions, proposals that limit options for the most vulnerable children in the hope of possibly benefiting the middle class, willful ignorance, and false and misleading statements.

Posted by CarolineSF on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

And Lucretia S., you imply that SFUSD is doing a less successful job handling challenges than other districts. That would inherently mean other comparable districts. Can you name a more successful diverse, high-poverty urban district? (No, we're not talking about Palo Alto or Walnut Creek.)

Posted by CarolineSF on Aug. 19, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

I happened to be in a discussion on a nationwide parent activists' listserve about this. Here's what a Seattle parent activist reported:

"In Seattle our Broad [trained in billionaire Eli Broad's superintendent camp] superintendent brought back "community schools" after years of school choice which had worked well for all concerned. This has brought back resegregation of our schools. The "north end" parents are pleased with the change but the African American community feels completely disenfranchised by the new assignment plan."

From a Charlotte parent:

"Here in Charlotte we are in the final stages of a full economic resegregation of our schools into high-poverty center city schools, lower poverty schools in the nearer suburbs and extremely low poverty schools in the far-out suburbs. Of course, this means a lot of racial segregation as well. This has happened in the past decade, after thirty years of the nation's most successful busing for desegregation program, which made schools across the city far more equal, and also helped break down many of the social and racial barriers that segregation has created.

The line is that high poverty schools will improve once everyone stops whining about inequality and focuses on their "neighborhood" school. The reality is that we now have schools that can draw on tremendous parental resources and schools that have almost none, where kids are completely isolated in high-poverty, high-minority settings 24/7. You can imagine the differences in instruction, extracurriculars, morale, etc. And what has happened has been a huge scramble on the part of the most active parents to get out of high-poverty schools by either moving to the suburbs, enrolling in magnets, or going to private school (the return of neighborhood schools, interestingly, sparked growth in the exodus to private schools, rather than the reverse, which is what neighborhood school advocates had said it would do.)"

Rest my case.

Posted by CarolineSF on Aug. 20, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

I have to say, your comments have been insightful. It makes me wonder if one of the issues with SFUSD has been that they're bad at the PR game. That is, the public perception (see Nevius columns) is that SF schools are bad. SFUSD could do a better job at correcting that perception.

I don't agree with you on Prop 13, but that's a discussion for another time...

Posted by Patrick on Aug. 21, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

Thank you, Patrick. Yes, I definitely think it's a big issue with SFUSD that they're bad at the PR game -- and that's not to criticize the actual PR people within the district. I think there are other issues within the district bureaucracy that make it hard for the PR people to do their jobs effectively. That's not a good thing, but it has nothing to do with how the schools function.

Posted by CarolineSF on Aug. 21, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

To paraphrase Chris Rock's joke about "What do women want?" the answer being a confused man's "Everything". That is simply what Nevius wants "everything"..... for now.

Boo Hoo, I decided to have kids and thought it would be just like when I was a kid and obvlivious to the reality that my parents suffered through. Why are there so many problems in schools? Can't we wave a magic wand and make them disappear?

The ignorance of the plight of teachers in public schools in California is such a shocking disgrace it could fill 4 hours of Frontline on PBS and bring more tears to your eyes than a special on cats drowning for the buddah.

The bloated administration in the public school system in California is a disgrace and a financial farce. Eunuchs in a harem.

When you see teaching as a "vocation" and something people do because the "love it" you ARE the problem.

Merit Pay would be a start. Reviewing the right to education, as controversial as that is, wouldn't be a band second. When we regard schools a "free babysitting" for parents who do not give a flying fuck about anything, we are engendering our own problems.

What Nevius wants? Magic, pure voodoo magic to fix things his generation screwed up for everyone else.

Posted by Frank McGee on Aug. 24, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

it is assumed that if a neighborhood school assignment system were implemented, it would be inherently "more unequal". public funding for the schools would certainly be the same per child. is the concern is that the education provided would be better at the schools in the more affluent areas? how so? if it happens the parents choose to supplement the education of their kids, should that not be encouraged? it happens in any case, via private education.

certainly he is not suggesting that schools comprised of minority kids would be somehow inherently less equal.

Posted by mike c on Aug. 25, 2010 @ 9:46 am

Politicians love to talk about teacher:student ratio and "funding per child", how about funding per teacher? You know, you remember... those people who em... "teach" your child?

Parents are so insanely protective and blind about their own kids; unless its a convicted mass-murderer or heavens forfend, in our more conservative communities, a "homosexual" teaching your kids - you could give a rats ass.

"Drop 'em off, pick em up" and get self-righteous up in some 26 year old's face when Little Timmy or Precious Mary isn't doing so well in class. Thats is berate the person who teaches your child about life for $40,000 a year and will never dig themselves out of debt with "funding per child" systems.

Lets start by paying our teachers in the same manner we pay those who run our other public institutions we care about as deeply as our children like say.. something important... a nuclear power plant, clean water, sewage, medicine, therapists.... etc etc

The childish Nevius-styed "but I don't want to pay another tax" whining here is so sickening and so utterly self-righteous and ignorant it has no place in this debate. For shame! Parents, for shame!

Posted by Frank McGee on Aug. 25, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

Mike, to answer your question about why it's assumed that a strictly neighborhood school assignment system would result in unequal schools:

Low-income, at-risk students from disadvantaged communities tends to (overall on average) come to school with much higher needs and far less preparation than privileged kids from stable families with educated parents. It requires far more effort and resources on the part of the school to try to meet the needs of those students.

A school that copes with a critical mass of high-need, at-risk, challenged students tends to become overwhelmed and struggle. A school that enrolls entirely privileged students with resources, parental support and so forth has it much easier and is much better positioned to be academically successful.

These situations are reality throughout the world. So I hope that helps clarify.

Posted by CarolineSF on Aug. 26, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

I really like Chuck Nevius and his perspective on the school selection process in SF. My wife and I have two dogs. Enough said.

Posted by Guest Paul on Aug. 27, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

I knew it! who else has time to stroke the ego of a Nevius in the sfgate comments section. Its like craigslist on whatever the sportsmen are having, steroid wise.

Posted by Frank McGee on Aug. 31, 2010 @ 9:36 pm