Friday’s New York Times had an interesting and mostly fair-minded article by Dana Goldstein about San Francisco’s unsuccessful attempts to engineer the racial makeup of its public schools. In pursuit of this goal, some students have had to be assigned to schools that are not their parents’ first or second choice, and that means trouble. It’s hard enough trying to design a school-assignment policy that will satisfy everyone when (as is true in most cities) some of your schools are so bad that no one wants to send their kids there, but setting an additional racial-balance requirement overdetermines the problem even further.
The city used to bus children to schools outside their neighborhoods to achieve racial balance, but this was ruled unfair to Asians. Now San Francisco is still supposed to create racially balanced schools, but without explicitly using race as a factor in deciding who goes where. Good luck with that. The city’s current assignment lottery was instituted in 2011, after decades of lawsuits and litigation and policy reversals. Here’s the article’s description of how it works:
After families submit their kindergarten applications, ranking as many school choices as they like across the city, a computer algorithm makes assignments. Those from neighborhoods where students have scored low on state tests get first dibs at their top-ranked programs. Each child gets an address-based priority at one school, but it is considered only after those with test-score priority are offered seats.
Got all that? Well, there’s more. And of course, well-off parents are more likely to have the time and flexibility needed to perform research and visit schools and fill out the necessary paperwork (including the three additional applications you’re allowed if you don’t like the school your child was initially assigned to). As Goldstein summarizes:
Parental choice has not been the leveler of educational opportunity it was made out to be. Affluent parents are able to take advantage of the system in ways low-income parents cannot, or they opt out of public schools altogether. What happened in San Francisco suggests that without remedies like wide-scale busing, or school zones drawn deliberately to integrate, school desegregation will remain out of reach.
And indeed, you wouldn’t expect parental choice to be much use if you restrict it to public schools (the word “charter” appears once in the article), ration it out with an incomprehensible algorithm, and require exhaustive efforts from busy parents to make any sense of the process. As Goldstein points out, when parents draw an unwanted public-school assignment for their kids, they often send them to private or charter schools. The result is that despite the educrats’ best efforts, San Francisco’s schools are more segregated than the city’s neighborhoods. So why not go back to neighborhood-based schools? Especially since, as a longtime school-board member asserts, “the strengths of predominantly black schools . . . [are] often overlooked”?
Ideally, the metric of success would be how good all of San Francisco’s schools are, rather than how integrated San Francisco’s public schools are. Instead of devising ever more baroque ways to force or persuade parents to send their kids to schools they don’t like, the goal should be making better schools, government-run or charter, available to everyone. But in the face of opposition from the education establishment, that’s an even tougher assignment than designing the perfect algorithm.