Does the School Board Matter?

By Joel P. Engardio

Lots of San Francisco voters skip school board elections. Maybe it’s because just 16 percent of The City’s households have kids. Nationally, the number is 44 percent.

Yet school board policies affect everyone.

For example, all good San Francisco liberals – parents or not -- should care if a complicated school assignment system contributes to the widening economic gap.

Stuck in traffic? All drivers should realize how school assignment worsens the maddening crawl.

And aspiring homeowners will want to know how the school assignment process could influence where people buy.

First, let’s consider the traffic.

In old San Francisco, kids walked to their neighborhood school. Then we started busing kids across town in the 1970s to racially integrate schools. Lawsuits eventually ended race-based assignment.

Today, schools are assigned by ranked choice. Families living in areas with the lowest test scores have priority to choose the best schools. Families elsewhere must rely on luck -- or pay for a private school.

The result is many students go to school far from home. That’s 56,000 public school students moving around San Francisco twice daily. They’re largely driven by parents in private cars because it’s too expensive to do it all by school bus and public transportation isn’t quick, reliable or safe enough.

Then there are the private school students (27 percent of school-age kids in San Francisco). They get driven, too. And we’re supposedly a green city.

Next, consider the impact of the assignment system on neighborhoods where economic disparity is stark and property values are low enough to attract gentrification.

Realtors tout the school assignment perk that comes with living where test scores are low. The status isn’t means tested, so families with the means to commute have no problem using their priority to get into better schools.

But many of the poorest students don’t participate because they lack the resources to travel or don’t know about the program (try finding clear information about anything city-run). So they end up staying in schools that continue to get more racially and economically isolated.

Three years of data shows that a well-intentioned school assignment system has only led to more segregation. And frustration for the parents who can’t get into a desired school they live next to.

What’s the solution? Sandra Fewer and Rachel Norton are school board members willing to give kids entering kindergarten more opportunity to attend their neighborhood school. But it’s unclear if they have the votes needed to make this important change (the first hearing is August 11).

Some on the school board want to revisit 1970s-style busing, even if it means reversing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision against race-based student assignment.

I wonder if the real answer is full neighborhood schools.

The key is putting the most popular language immersion and arts magnet programs in the most struggling schools. That way, disadvantaged kids can walk to the best school without being dispersed from their neighborhood.

The high demand for language immersion will draw wealthier families to the schools and communities that could benefit from an influx of middle class parents investing their time and resources (and private school families might be lured if they can save tuition on a similar experience). It will also take pressure off currently coveted schools, freeing up seats so more neighborhood families can attend.

When neighborhood kids go to the same school, families know each other and bonds grow. It’s the cohesion that builds community, which all residents can enjoy.

My friend Lee Hsu -- the rare school board candidate that isn’t seeking higher office and actually has kids in school – shares my sentiment. He’s running on what he calls a “community schools” platform: “Neighborhood schools plus more magnets equals stronger communities.”

There are several worthy candidates to fill three school board seats this fall. Don’t skip it. The school board matters -- perhaps more than many things we vote for.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner August 3, 2014

EducationJoel Engardio