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.