Segregated Schools in San Francisco?

By Joel P. Engardio

Dickens remains timeless as politicians try to win votes by comparing today’s economic inequality with his 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities.”

While hyperbole is easy in the absence of French Revolution-era guillotines, the disparity gap is quite real – and surprisingly wide -- in San Francisco’s tale of two school systems.

Consider: More than 60 percent of public school students in San Francisco are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. And the public school population has a higher percentage of minorities than the general population.

For example, Latinos represent 15 percent of San Francisco residents but 26 percent of The City’s public school students. For Asians it’s 33 versus 44 percent. African Americans are at 6 and 8 percent.

Is San Francisco segregated when a quarter of public schools have a supermajority of a single non-white race? Nearly half of San Francisco is white, but only 12 percent of public school students are.

Where are the white students? One-third of San Francisco’s school-age kids attend private schools.

As more parents choose private schools or move away to suburban schools, only half of the kids born in San Francisco end up in public kindergarten. The school district projects most of its future enrollment growth will come from families in public housing.

Meanwhile, a dozen new private schools will have opened in San Francisco between 2009 and 2015.

Some school officials dismiss the flight of middle class and wealthy families by saying attention is best focused on serving the needs of the poorer students who remain in public school.

Yet imagine if the school district viewed middle class parents who can afford private tuition as valuable customers worth competing for.

Parents with resources donate their time and money to the classroom, which benefits all students. They will also have “skin in the game” when it comes to the politics of taxes and school funding.

If one-third of San Francisco’s families opt out of public school, how much will they care about what happens to public schools? It doesn’t bode well for the poor students left behind.

“This is partly a PR problem,” said Rachel Norton, a school board member who has two daughters in public high school. “Parents of means think students won’t get a good education in public school. And there’s a certain segment who won’t go to public schools no matter how wonderful they are.”

But Beth Weise, an investigative author who also writes a blog about schools, reluctantly put her two daughters in private middle school after a good experience with public elementary school. She feared her kids would be unchallenged after middle school honors track classes were cut for an integrated approach with students of all levels.

“I understand integration is preferable, but the district is ignoring the part of the research that says this only works in small class sizes – not the large classes in middle school,” Weise said. “Show us the data that getting rid of honors doesn’t matter and the parents who left public schools will come back tomorrow.”

The children of professional, upper middle class parents like Weise will do fine no matter what. But welcoming these demanding customers is good for public schools.

We could create more language immersion and arts magnet schools that match what private schools offer, while putting the most desired programs in the lowest performing schools.

Will wealthier families venture into neighborhoods they might have otherwise ignored? Saving private school tuition is a powerful incentive.

“It’s win-win,” Weise said. “You will get an influx of middle class parents happy to give their time and resources to a school that poorer kids in the neighborhood can walk to.”

Sounds like something Dickens would like.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner August 17, 2014

EducationJoel Engardio