A ‘Hunger Games’ for parents in San Francisco

Ask any parent remaining in San Francisco (a city with more dogs than kids) to describe the process of applying for public school and you’ll often hear “nightmare.”

Getting a child into kindergarten is nearly as complicated and competitive as college admissions. Parents rank multiple choices and spin a roulette wheel — unless they can afford private school. Others flee San Francisco for places that are deemed more family friendly.

Want to walk your child to school in The City? Don’t count on it. Students can be dispersed from their neighborhoods to all corners of The City in the name of diversity. Communities are weakened when families on the same block can’t bond through a shared school.

Meanwhile, San Francisco suffers more traffic jams. School bus service has been drastically cut and parents drive their kids to school because public transportation is too unreliable. So it goes in a supposedly green city.

We endure these unintended consequences as the price for economically and racially diverse schools. But we aren’t getting what we paid for, especially when city demographics could create many diverse neighborhood schools automatically.

“I have yet to hear any parent of any background say they love the school assignment system and that it really works for them,” said Matt Haney, a member of the elected school board. “I was willing to excuse some of the negative stories – the anger, the frustration, families leaving San Francisco — because our crazy system had a bigger goal of better outcomes. Now I question if it is all worth it. If the system isn’t accomplishing its goals, then what’s the point?”

Disillusionment from Haney is a big deal because he’s a true believer in social justice through government action. He even wears a silver ring engraved with the case number of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that ended state-sponsored school segregation.

But self-segregation is a reality in San Francisco.

Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis presented data to the school board last fall that showed families in San Francisco “tend to select schools with higher proportions of students as the same race as them.”

“It shook me a bit,” Haney said. “People are picking schools that look like them when their neighborhood school would actually be more diverse if everyone just went there.”

Parents in areas with the lowest test scores (called CTIP1) get priority for any school citywide. The idea is that kids from disadvantaged areas can attend a better school in a wealthier neighborhood. Still, many low-performing schools remain racially concentrated.

“Choice in our system is heavily constrained by access to resources and information,” Haney said. “Sometimes choice can be more of an illusion.”

Consider a Bayview school that’s mostly African-American despite an increase in white and Asian residents moving into the neighborhood. Parent blogs and real estate agents tout the “asset” of buying a home in a CTIP1 area because all residents get school priority regardless of wealth. Families who can afford to drive their kids across town benefit while the poorest students stay behind.

Yet a majority of parents of all races said attending a school close to home was “very important,” according to the Stanford report. What if the parents choosing far away schools had reason to invest their resources locally?

Haney said parents face “a classic prisoner’s dilemma.” If 10 families live on the same block, they could work together to improve a struggling neighborhood school. But if five families win the lottery for a top school elsewhere, five are left with less incentive to commit to the local school. They could opt for private education or leave The City.

The school district’s annual report admits that the assignment system adopted in 2010 hasn’t changed the number of schools that are more than 60 percent of the same race.

“Some people say that what we have now is the best bad option,” Haney said. “But I don’t think we should just throw parents to ‘The Hunger Games’ and say, ‘good luck.’ If the system isn’t working for people, we need to address that.”

There is a solution. While proximity is part of the current school assignment formula, it could rank higher. Originally, the school district wanted to put proximity above CTIP1. But the school board voted against that professional recommendation because it thought a stronger CTIP1 would create more diversity. It’s a reversible decision, if four of the seven school board commissioners are willing to fix it.

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at jengardio@sfexaminer.com.

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