Race may again be factor in school assignments

Seven years after a lawsuit forced the San Francisco Unified School District to not consider race when assigning students to schools, a proposal to put ethnicity back into the equation in order to help diversify schools will be introduced at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

The proposal, authored by School Board President Norman Yee and Vice President Sarah Lipson, also resolves to eliminate neighborhood preference for high school assignments. It will also direct district administration to investigate possible admissions changes at San Francisco’s two selective high schools — the academically focused Lowell High School and the School of the Arts — in order to boost diversity at those schools.

A plan to increase the number of “magnet” programs, such as language immersion, so families are attracted to schools throughout The City would also be required, among other efforts to allow students from poor neighborhoods to attend more desirable schools in other areas.

“The big picture here is that we’re continuing to get more and more segregated, and segregation is not good for our kids’ education,” Yee said, adding that a majority of school board members supported the proposal.

Nearly half of San Francisco’s 110 public schools are “severely segregated” at one or more grade levels, with one race making up more than 60 percent of the population, according to an independent monitor’s report in 2005. At that time, the district was coming to the end of a decades-old desegregation plan that had been imposed by a federal court order in 1983.

That desegregation plan hit a stumbling block in 1999 when Chinese American parents who said their children were being denied the opportunity to go to popular schools due to the so-called consent decree filed a lawsuit. As a result, the current student assignment system uses a “diversity index” that takesinto account a student’s socioeconomic background but does not consider race.

The lawyer for the Chinese American families, David Levine, said if the district tried to reintroduce race into the assignment system, another lawsuit would surely follow. Levine said the district couldn’t legally consider ethnicity due to California’s Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996, which prohibits public agencies from using race in making decisions about education, employment or contracting.

The district has put some hope in the outcome of two cases seeking to determine the constitutionality of using race in school admissions — one coming from Kentucky and another from Washington — that will be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court starting next month.

“We believe that legally there are ways that race can be used,” said David Campos, the general counsel for the school district. Campos said the district would have to meet a federal standard that requires the use of race be “narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”

Levine said that California’s law against affirmative action has already held up in court and would trump any other legal arguments in favor of using race.

One family’s story: System forces move out of town

Noe Valley parent Krista Hohler said she isn’t even willing to give San Francisco’s public schools a chance.

She’s heard horror stories about the district’s student assignment system and she’s not confident that her three-year-old daughter would get a good education at one of The City’s public schools when she’s old enough to attend. Not willing to play the odds, Hohler said she and her husband are making plans to move to Orinda.

“I don’t like the whole system. I grew up in the midwest, where you went to school in the neighborhood,” Hohler said. “Most of my friends are either going to put their child inprivate school or are planning to move out of The City.”

Hohler is not the first parent to feel animosity toward the district’s controversial system of assigning students, which gives some preference to students with disadvantaged backgrounds. Many parents say the system, along with high housing costs, are major factors in the dwindling number of families with children in The City.

Public school boosters, however, point out that the process has improved considerably over the years. Since the process allows parents to submit an application with up to seven preferences, a large majority of kindergarten families that enrolled this year, 85 percent, received one of their selections.

Next Saturday, the San Francisco Unified School District will kick off the enrollment season for the 2007-2008 school year with a public school fair at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Lorraine Woodruff-Long, president of the San Francisco chapter of Parents for Public Schools, said the fair was a good place for parents to start investigating the many positive public school options.

“There is so much misinformation about public schools and the enrollment process,” Woodruff-Long said. “There are so many fabulous schools out there and it’s just about going out there and looking and seeing them for yourself.”


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