Jury right about school lottery

An important blow against San Francisco’s ineffective, unfair and costly public school assignment lottery has been struck by The City’s civil grand jury, with their report calling for a return to giving families preference at neighborhood schools. The near-incomprehensible “diversity index” assignment system — which is supposed to somehow desegregate schools without considering race — has been driving local parents crazy since 1999.

Just about the only good thing that can be said about the San Francisco Unified School District assignment lottery is that it managed to twist itself into compliance with two wildly contradictory court rulings. The list of things wrong about the system is much longer.

Parents of SFUSD’s 55,000 students can include seven ranked school choices on their enrollment applications. And nearly two-thirds of the families do receive their first choices. But on the other hand, roughly half of the remaining one-third cannot get into any of their family choices.

Weighing all six factors that determine each diversity index assignment is such a demanding process that it annually wastes $2 million of the district’s scarce funds on 29 employees, who are needed for helping parents fill out the forms. An even heftier $5 million per year is wasted on busing students back and forth across town.

And, oh yes the assignment lottery also happens to be an utter failure. A UC Los Angeles, study in 2005 concluded the SFUSD assignment system has continued producing “severe segregation … at close to half of the District schools since 1999.”

Although the district has made no changes to its enrollment practices for two years, it repeatedly assembles study groups to report on the assignment problem. A new analysis is due this fall. And from what board President Mark Sanchez told The Examiner, the SFUSD is unlikely to consider any action before then.

So the district still makes its school assignments on the basis of a methodology that deprives one-third of all families from getting their first choice, wastes $7 million per year and doesn’t work. Why change anything — especially just because of an unbiased independent evaluation?

The goal of an ideal public school assignment operation should be to enable parents to send their children to the school of their choice — whether that is the neighborhood school or another school in the district. Admittedly, this is not easy to achieve in the real world.

But the civil grand jury report wisely suggested that the neighborhood school boundaries should be redrawn to take in larger areas, resulting in a bigger pool of students representing different ethnicities. With SFUSD enrollment dropping and schools being closed, this might actually be possible. It certainly seems like an improvement over today’s fatally flawed assignment fiasco.

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