Another school year has ended, which wraps another year of people pretending to care about public schools.
My brother and I were a controlled experiment. I went to public school through eighth grade and a private high school. He went to private elementary and public middle and high school. The data shows conclusively that I’m higher-achieving, but he’s a better person.
I was equally miserable at the “good” Rooftop elementary school as I was at “busted” Martin Luther King Middle School, which I was bussed to under the consent decree desegregation program. (When I describe schools as good or busted and suchlike, I mean perception based on test scores, demand for spots, and gossip at the white people meetings.) I had good and bad teachers at both schools. Despite my lifelong unending anhedonia, as a white guy from an educated family I am statistically guaranteed a Prius no matter what my teachers do.
Statistically speaking, my kids will be fine whether they’re in School of Rock or Coach Carter.
My kids attend the Spanish immersion program at Leonard Flynn Elementary, walking distance from our house. They made great friends and like their teachers and feel safe. We feel lucky to be part of such a diverse and dynamic community.
I grew up in Bernal Heights. Once the Chronicle published a map of homicides, and the block with the most was Bernal Dwellings, before HOPE VI demolished the projects in the ’90s. Flynn was the elementary school for that. Families like mine avoided it.
Today, Flynn is in the sweet spot of gentrification, which as it turns out is between 60-75 percent students getting free lunch. Because of neighborhood demographic changes, there are enough middle class families to bring extra resources to benefit everyone, but not so many we evict the PTA. Flynn struggles enough that middle class children’s worried grandparents come to rescue them with private school tuition, but Flynn doesn’t deserve that worry.
Earlier this year, Flynn families got a letter from the district saying that because we score below some state threshold, we had Open Enrollment. We could request to be transferred to a better school, and our request would be granted after families at schools scoring even worse than ours, pending availability. We feared either that our kids were getting a horrible education we somehow hadn’t noticed, or that a mass defection of families would send Flynn into a death spiral.
I asked my dad, who spent decades evaluating school performance and desegregation efforts in San Francisco. He explained that the scores mainly measure the racial composition of the student body. Test scores measure socioeconomic class. As far as the scores are concerned, white kids do more or less the same at any school in the district. Low scores — more poor black and brown kids.
Schools with more black and Latino students tend to be poorer and have meager PTA fundraising, so everything else looks worse on paper. And often is. White parents threaten to abandon the public system to avoid poor and brown schools. But poor and brown with low scores doesn’t reveal how good the teachers are, just that oppression exists. If the best teachers were at the lowest-performing schools, no one would know. Certainly not the parents on tours cross-examining the principal like a Guatanamo inmate.
School choice is doomed in a system without adequate resources to do right by all students. We pretty much know the answers to underperforming schools and resegregation, and they’re the same as the answers to poverty. As Kevine Boggess of Coleman Advocates said on my podcast, “if San Francisco did as good a job of educating all its students as it does with white and Asian students, it would be a triumph.”