By Joel P. Engardio
By evolutionary standards, San Francisco should be headed for extinction; we have fewer children than any major American city. More dogs than kids live here.
It’s not that we aren’t making babies. The first generation of Google and Facebook engineers are 30-somethings and starting families. Lots of gay couples are having children. The problem is many parents flee San Francisco when their kids reach ages four or five.
Housing and schools are the reasons. Converted closets only work as bedrooms for so long. Where to go to school and how to get there is maddeningly complicated.
Our city is attractive to young singles, tourists and the wealthy. That’s fine for keeping the economy humming, as there’s always a new wave of programmers just out of college to feed the latest high-tech cycle. We won’t go extinct.
But is a city of transplants that turns over every decade a good thing?
It’s popular for politicians to talk about keeping families in San Francisco. The latest idea is a law to make local businesses offer flexible work schedules. Many companies already provide the benefit, which leaves parents wondering why we aren’t talking about what they really need – such as two- and three-bedroom units affordable for a middle-class family.
But that solution requires acknowledging two facts our city isn’t ready to face. First, we need more housing, which means more density. Second, rent control has distorted our housing market to the point that no one can live here unless they’re rich or lucky to have a good deal.
If we don’t have the political will to tackle housing, let’s do something about schools. There’s a relatively easy fix to the school assignment system that would keep lots of parents from leaving San Francisco when their kids reach school age.
Parents I talked to from the Bayview district to West Portal want the same thing: a good, safe school that’s close to home. But students are currently dispersed all over The City.
The aim is classroom diversity, which the San Francisco Unified School District admits is not working as planned. Maybe we should focus on making every school great and just let the student body look the way it is.
Parents get school choice priority when they live in areas where test scores are low. It’s supposed to help disadvantaged students get into good schools. But there’s a loophole. As wealthier families gentrify neighborhoods with lower test scores, how many will use the address to get a better school assignment?
The policy benefits the wrong people, especially when driving kids to school is a hardship for families without resources. And putting a young child on public transportation is unnerving for any parent.
The unintended consequences continue to multiply. Commuting cuts into scarce family time, and neighborhoods can’t bond when kids on the same block attend different schools. School-related driving contributes to traffic congestion. Fewer parents get involved when school activities are across town.
The system is broken and the Board of Education can help fix it by putting proximity above test scores in the school assignment process. Families living near good schools will have less reason to switch to private schools or move elsewhere. Parents who live near underperforming schools will demand a school that serves their community.
Sending kids far from home isn’t the answer. We must improve low-performing schools and be willing to do whatever it takes. Charter schools are using technology in other cities with great success.
Three things will keep families in San Francisco: affordable housing, better schools and higher quality of life. A good school that a family can walk to gets us two steps closer.