Friday, June 03, 2005

School assignment system called ‘wasted effort'

School assignment system called ‘wasted effort'

By Bonnie Eslinger
Staff Writer, San Francisco Examiner
June 3, 2005

The student-assignment system currently used to diversify San Francisco's public schools was called a "well-intentioned, but wasted effort that didn't do the job," according to the federal judge now overseeing the district's desegregation efforts.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup made the comments in court Thursday as the district updated the court on its progress toward meeting the goals of a 1983 legal settlement that has required the district to work toward integrating schools and increasing the academic achievement for the district's minority students.

The 22-year-old debate on how to best achieve those ends is again at the forefront since the court order, called a consent decree, is scheduled to end on Dec. 31, which would allow the district to try other ways to assign students to schools.

Peter Cohn, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which originally filed suit against the district that led to the court-ordered desegregation, has said the organization will ask for an extension of the order due to evidence that shows the district remains segregated with a persistent achievement gap. He agreed a new system needed to be found.

The current system uses a "diversity index" that takes into account a student's socioeconomic background but does not consider race. It is the result of a subsequent lawsuit in 1999 by Chinese-American parents who said their children were being denied the opportunity to go to popular schools due to their race.

In recent months, the board has been reviewing several alternative ideas to the diversity index, three proposed by a community task force and another from first-year board member Norman Yee. However, the district's lawyers informed the judge Thursday that two school desegregation experts had been retained and were prepared to review all existing ideas as well as present new options.

"It was a good move to hire experts," said Cohn. "It will help the board make the most informed decision."

UCLA education professor Stuart Biegel, assigned by the court to monitor the desegregation efforts, also applauded the district's decision to seek other ideas. Two of the four current proposals allow more opportunity for students to get assigned to neighborhood schools, giving little advantage to students living within the boundaries of some of the worst schools to attend others.

Veteran board members Dan Kelly and Jill Wynns have both said they would not support any of the existing proposals since they don't focus on desegregating schools. Kelly has authored a resolution that would continue to work toward integration and bring back race as a factor in the assignment process.

San Francisco isn't the only school district embattled in school-assignment debates as a result of desegregation efforts. Districts across the country, including Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Baton Rouge, La., are currently in legal battles, but some districts have been released from their desegregation court orders, including Kansas City, Mo., and Dallas.

"It's a difficult thing desegregation, especially when the use of race could be limited," said Biegel, who later noted, "But there are plans nationwide that are working."

Last year, in Louisville, Ky., a federal judge upheld the limited use of race in making student assignments to achieve racial integration in the public schools.

David Levine, one of the lawyers for the Chinese plaintiffs, said that the Kentucky ruling wouldn't apply in California, since voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which eliminates the use of racial preferences for public education and other state agencies and


Whatever assignment system the district decides to use, the consent decree should come to an end, said Levine, since students were not forced by the district to go to bad schools. "The kids can choose any school they want, with the exception of Lowell [High School], and throw themselves into the lottery."



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