Lottery for school assignment comes under fire

San Francisco’s public school system should abandon the complicated school assignment lottery system that attempts to diversify student populations and return to giving families preference at neighborhoods schools, according to a report scheduled for release today.

The civil grand jury report revives a long-standing debate about how to best assign students to schools. It suggests an overhaul that would redraw boundaries, resulting in neighborhood schools that pool from a larger area with students of different ethnicities, according to David Hartley, a juror who helped craft the report.

The current school-assignment process asks parents to fill out an application and list seven schools they’d like their child to attend. Through a lottery system based on socioeconomic factors, students are granted admission. Supporters of the system say that a large majority of families — this year 82 percent — get one of their choices. Critics point out that 18 percent received none of their choices for next school year during the first round of the assignments.

The district has struggled with how students should be assigned for decades. In 1983, a federal court ordered San Francisco to integrate the public schools, after the San Francisco chapter of the National Association of Colored People filed suit against the district and the state.

In 1991, a subsequent lawsuit claimed the district was discriminating against some parents when using race to assign schools. The result was a complex lottery system that places students based on a variety of factors, including a school’s academic performance, a student’s socioeconomic status and home language. The district is no longer bound by a federal court to have a system that integrates schools. The order was lifted in December 2005.

Many have been critical of the lottery system and parents find the process opaque and vexing — costing the district $2 million per year for a 29-person staff tasked to help parents apply for schools, according to Hartley. Ifthe district removed its current lottery, it also could save $5 million per year busing students to schools across town, Hartley added.

However, changes to the system that everyone can agree upon have been difficult to find. Several student assignment task forces have been created in the last five years to study the problem and come up with solutions.

In addition to provoking the ire of parents, the existing assignment system is not succeeding in integrating schools.

By 2005, more than half of the SFUSD’s schools were “severely segregated,” according to a report from UCLA professor Stuart Biegel. Although district leaders and Board of Education members received the report Tuesday, most said they had not yet read it and wouldn’t comment on its contents.

“It seems to me they’re asking the district to take a serious look at the student-assignment system, and that’s what we’re already doing,” board President Mark Sanchez said.

Although the district has made no changes to its enrollment practices in two years, it will consider doing so this fall, after a new study on the existing system is completed, according to Sanchez.

By the numbers

For the 2008-2009 school year

55,000: Total number of students

7: Schools parents can list on their enrollment application

63%: Portion of families who received their first choice

82%: Portion of families who received one of their choices

18%: Portion of families who received none of their choices

Source: Parents for Public Schools

Timeline of events

A historical look at school enrollment within the San Francisco Unified School District: » 1978: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, files a lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District and the California Department of Education on behalf of a group of black parents whose children had been assigned to racially segregated schools.

» 1983: The lawsuit is settled with a federal consent decree, or court order, which mandates reforms district must make to improve academic achievement and desegregate schools. District implements racial caps at schools that limit the number of students of one race to 45 percent.

» 1994: Families of several schoolchildren file a class-action lawsuit against the state, the school district and the NAACP challenging the consent decree as a denial of their rights under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

» 1999: The lawsuit is settled with an agreement that race will not be used in deciding school assignments.

» 2001: The consent decree is extended until Dec. 31, 2005, and a new assignment system is created that uses a “diversity index” which considers six socioeconomic factors — not including race — when assigning students to popular schools.

» 2005: A UC Los Angeles report on SFUSD’s assignment system concludes that there maintains “a pattern of continuing resegregation at close to half of the District schools since 1999.”

» 2005: Consent decree is closed on Dec. 31, by decision of a federal judge.

» 2007: In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down race-based public school enrollment plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky.

» 2008: San Francisco civil grand jury recommends dismantling current enrollment-lottery system and reverting to offering families preference at neighborhood schools while redrawing school boundaries.

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