Sunday May 31

EXCERPT FROM Class Action: Desegregation and Diversity in San Francisco Schools: Desegregating San Francisco Schools

San Francisco’s long and unfulfilled struggle to desegregate its schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education offers a powerful lesson on the complex politics that can emerge with education reform. The case helps illuminate the interrelated and evolving relationship between jurisprudence and community-based advocacy and activism in the decades-long struggle over equal educational opportunity. Desegregation programs were developed by the superintendent and her or his cabinet and approved by the school board. Preferred alternatives were stipulated by legal parties, originally with the SFNAACP as class representative for African American students, then with the SFNAACP as class representative for all students, and finally with a party representing the subclass of Chinese American students. Under the consent decree, the state directed desegregation funds to the district and created the regulatory environment within which student assignment was confined. Decisions were ultimately made by the federal district court and, in a few instances, the Ninth Circuit. All the while, numerous community stakeholders sought to intervene, formally and informally, through political and legal channels, with varying degrees of success.

Desegregation was a racial project. Under court mandate to desegregate its schools, the district transitioned first from Horseshoe/Operation Integrate to Educational Redesign and then from Educational Redesign to the Diversity Index Lottery. With each transition, the new system embodied a fundamentally different understanding of student assignment and was a source of political contention as different community stakeholders sought to protect or dismantle the status quo system. The use of race and ethnicity subgroup categories in the assignment of students to schools and the end goal of eliminating racial segregation in every school, program, and classroom meant that in a city like San Francisco, both schisms and partnerships emerged within and across community groups representing Black, White, Asian, and Latino constituents. Many families and several community groups in the city supported desegregation and racial diversity in the schools. But their efforts were countered by mobilized groups for whom a desegregated school system was a lesser priority or an alternative that needed to be opposed.

Logics—those sets of ideas, assumptions, practices, values, and rules that constitute patterns of organization and dictate appropriate behavior—matter in the negotiation over policy alternatives. How educational values, priorities, and goals are shaped, framed, and understood—and how they change over time—helps determine which alternatives are taken up by policymakers and which ones fall by the wayside. Logics were stable but not fixed. They were available for elaboration and manipulation by community and district stakeholders. Logics influenced desegregation by constraining and guiding the course and content of student assignment policy. Political contention over characterizations of student assignment led to fundamental policy shifts that altered the educational experience of multiple cohorts of public-school students.

To this point, each contentious episode of community mobilization and court action—the transition to Educational Redesign and then the transition to the Diversity Index Lottery—was considered apart from the other. These two episodes together explain how logics of opportunity, choice, and proximity shaped desegregation policy over the thirty-four-year span of court supervision.

The Trajectory of Equal Educational Opportunity From Racial Balance to Racial Unidentifiability

Contention arose over the school district’s proposal to replace Horseshoe/Operation Integrate with Educational Redesign. Throughout most of the 1970s, desegregation had been framed and understood largely as a Black-White issue. Its principal purpose was to correct government racial discrimination of Black students. Consequently, the definition of racial balance was a school in which the ratio of White to Black students was not substantially at variance with the district-wide ratio of White to Black students. To comply, the district adopted the standard that each recognized racial and ethnic subgroup at every school must fall within 15 percentage points of the subgroup’s district-wide percentage. Because of the demographics of the district, schools only needed to enroll significant numbers of Black and White students, and not Latino or Asian students, in order to be in compliance. The SFNAACP and its allies vigorously fought to preserve this bimodal (Black/White) desegregation framework.

With Educational Redesign, the district proposed a new standard. Unlike Horseshoe and Operation Integrate, schools would no longer be required to have a fixed ratio of White to Black students. Instead, the goal would be schools in which no racial or ethnic subgroup constituted a majority. To be in compliance, a school would need to enroll at least four of the nine recognized racial and ethnic subgroups, with no subgroup consisting of more than 40 or 45 percent of student enrollment (depending on the school). This amounted to an alternate concept of opportunity, from a bimodal desegregation framework to a multi-modal integration framework. Educational Redesign was approved by the school board and the federal district court and went into effect in the 1978–1979 school term. To the disappointment of the SFNAACP and its allies, a school could now enroll no Black students and/or no White students and still meet the definition of racial unidentifiability and thus comply with the court’s desegregation mandate.

With the passage of Educational Redesign, contention moved from the board chambers to the courthouse in the form of a legal action by the SFNAACP against the school district and state. As with Johnson, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of Black students. But in 1979, the class was redefined to encompass all schoolchildren, regardless of race or ethnicity, “now or hereafter eligible” to attend public schools in San Francisco. After nearly five years of pretrial maneuvers, the parties settled by agreeing to a consent decree. The decree had two goals. First, to eliminate racial identifiability in “every school, classroom, and program.” And second, to improve academic achievement, particularly for underserved students. The second goal was to be achieved through a focused effort on African American students, primarily through a special plan for Bayview-Hunters Point. Notably, the strategy offered nothing for underserved students attending schools outside of Bayview-Hunters Point.

With the California Department of Education, a party to the lawsuit, the district was all but guaranteed a steady flow of state desegregation funding to offset costs associated with consent decree activities. The consent decree also created a seat “at the decision-making table” for the SFNAACP. The decree was inviolate, observed the court. Any changes the school district wanted to make to its student assignment plan would need to be stipulated by all parties and would need final approval of the court. While the SFNAACP had a formal role in student assignment policy, the consent decree effectively locked out other community stakeholders, including the teachers’ union, the PTA, and the numerous organizations representing San Francisco’s diverse student communities. With a fast-growing population of English learners, questions soon emerged from MALDEF and other advocates regarding the SFNAACP’s ability to adequately and fairly represent all students.

From Race Conscious to Race Neutral

In applying the new definition and standard brought about by Educational Redesign, San Francisco was able to substantially eliminate racial identifiability in the schools for the first eight years or so of the consent decree.i But by the 1990s, the district began to resegregate. Resegregation took place during a period of renewed attention on student assignment. The population of White and Black students had been in decline since the 1970s. Conversely, the population of Chinese and Latino students had grown rapidly. These “drastic demographic changes” led the court to order a comprehensive evaluation of the decree. The resulting Experts’ Report and its potential to leverage efforts to amend or eliminate terms of the decree created an opening for stakeholders seeking to intervene in the process through political and legal means. Beyond San Francisco, the decade saw fundamental changes in federal desegregation and affirmative action jurisprudence. As the Supreme Court clarified the limits of government use of racial classifications, the nation was engaged in a dialogue on race with considerable attention focused on California and its “color-blind” policies. San Francisco’s student assignment system and, in particular, its impact on Chinese American students received national exposure and was held up by opponents as a symbol of the failings of race-conscious policy.

META’s 1993 motion to intervene on behalf of Latino and Asian students was supported by the board of education but denied by the court. While Judge Orrick acknowledged that the SFNAACP lacked expertise on issues affecting English learners, he determined that school desegregation “with respect to all races” was an interest it could adequately represent. With no serious criticism leveled on SFNAACP’s representation, intervention was not permitted. Had META been allowed to intervene, it is possible that a compromise solution would have been crafted that the Chinese American Democratic Club found acceptable.

Outside of the court and apart from META’s intervention, CADC mobilized its members and directed resources toward the consent decree issue. Although advocacy efforts aimed at the school board generated some attention, there was no indication that the board possessed the political will to challenge the consent decree outright. CADC shifted to a legal strategy, secured a team of attorneys, and identified class representatives. Unlike in SFNAACP v. SFUSD, in Ho v. SFUSD, the SFNAACP was aligned with the school district and the state representatives in defense of the consent
decree’s race-conscious integration scheme. As with any school discrimination lawsuit, Ho led to divisions in the community as stakeholders aligned with either the Ho plaintiffs or the SFUSD and SFNAACP. After nearly five years of pretrial work and the gradual realization by defendants that the law could no longer hold up the consent decree as it was currently composed, the parties agreed to amendments that eliminated the use of racial classifications in student assignment. Following an interim period in which a default plan was in place, the district introduced the Diversity Index Lottery in 2002. The new system remained through the December 2005 end of the consent decree (and beyond).

During the first phase of the consent decree, student assignment was based on a race-conscious integration framework first introduced in Educational Redesign. Following settlements in 1999 and 2001, assignment was based on a race-neutral diversity framework. Diversity was broadly defined, allowing the concept to be understood in multiple ways. While the consent decree’s original goal of racially and ethnically diverse schools remained, the use of racial classifications was dropped as it would almost certainly have been considered unconstitutional if the case went to trial. So, in place of racial classifications, the Diversity Index Lottery sought to create cohort diversity based on socioeconomic indicators. In essence, “race neutral” constrained the means but not the ends of a student assignment that required desegregation.

The consent decree began in 1983 on a hopeful note. But early gains made at eliminating racial identifiability were severely curtailed starting in the 1990s. Resegregation began during the first phase of the consent decree, under Rojas, and did not slow following the Ho settlements. By the end of the consent decree in 2005, more schools failed to meet the 45 percent subgroup threshold than at any time since the 1970–1971 school year. A similar claim can be made about the consent decree’s second goal. From as early as Equality/Quality in 1970, the district recognized the value of tying desegregation to efforts to improve the academic achievement of underserved students. Over the years, money, specialized programs, and technical assistance were provided to underperforming schools throughout the eastern neighborhoods of the city. With the 1983 consent decree, the goal of improved academic achievement was made explicit. While the achievement gap narrowed during the 1990s, this improvement was short-lived. And by 2005, although SFUSD’s district-wide Academic Performance Index ranking exceeded that of other urban school districts, African American students in San Francisco possessed lower achievement scores than their African American peers in San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento, and elsewhere.

RAND QUINN is associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Except from Class Action: Desegregation and Diversity in San Francisco Schools, available from the University of Minnesota at

End Notes

i. The district was less successful at meeting the consent decree’s additional integrative elements: eliminating racial identifiability in every classroom and program.

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