Musings on SFUSD’s Assignment System
From playgrounds, to parent listserves, to playgroups, if you are a parent of a child aged of 3-5 years old, you are familiar with one of San Francisco’s favorite past-times — bashing SFUSD’s School Assignment System.
Parents applying to SFUSD schools can apply to any of the roughly 70 schools in our district. With choice comes stress though, and researching all the options can be more than a little intimidating: start times, language programs, school demographics, enrichment programs. If you’ve made the investment to visit all the potential elementary schools on your list, school tours can feel like a part-time job. And if you wait till the last minute to turn in your paperwork, standing in line at the Enrollment Placement Center (EPC) is no barrel of laughs. In fact, it might feel more like a barrel of monkeys if you have a screaming toddler and wiggly Pre-K child in tow.
For these and other reasons the school enrollment process is regularly described as stressful, confusing, and even “byzantine”. (Yes, this SAT word has actually been used many times, in print, to describe our enrollment system… though I think it’s a tad bit melodramatic, no?)
If you aren’t a parent, you may think I’m exaggerating. As proof, I offer an example straight out of the SF Chronicle which typifies the narrative around the SFUSD enrollment process:
“Certainly, the numbers are incontestable. Nearly one-third of white, school-age students in San Francisco have opted out and are attending private school. Families routinely cite the byzantine school assignment system as a reason to leave the city and live somewhere where choosing a kindergarten isn’t a full-time job.”
What? White families are fleeing the public education system to go to private schools and move to the suburbs? Who ever heard of such a thing? Dear God…. NOOOOOOOOO!
Some context: The above quote comes from SF Chronicle writer C.W. Nevius, a long-time columnist notorious for his rants against tents for the homeless, rights for the mentally ill, and public nudity. (Duuude! What would San Francisco be without the random sighting of a nude guy wearing only huaraches and a fedora?)
Let’s look at the numbers
All kidding aside. Mr. Nevius’ claims are widely parroted by prospective parents throughout the city. And if you are of child-bearing age and attend open-houses, cocktail parties or heck, you breathe, you can attest to the fact that these types narratives predominate discussions about SF’s public schools.
So, let’s examine them, shall we?
First off, the fact that Neivus’ and others center their arguments around the needs and perspectives of White families is interesting. Most folks agree, all our kids do better in ethnically and culturally diverse schools — including White ones. Nonetheless, using “whiteness” as a measure of school desirability is undoubtedly troubling.
Now, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Neivus says “the numbers” don’t lie. Maybe not, but they don’t exactly prove Mr. Nevius’ assertions. According to a recent SFUSD enrollment report, of all the families applying to kindergarten during the 2015-2016 school year, 87% of them were offered enrollment at one of the schools on their list. (While 60% received their first choice!)
: / That doesn’t seem so bad does it? But I guess it depends on where you land in this whole lottery right? You’re either happy or your not. If you’re one of the 13% that didn’t get one of the schools on your list, it doesn’t matter that 87% of all the other families got what they wanted. In fact, hearing all your friends tell you how happy they are they got the “perfect” school might make you feel even worse.
Due to this horrible (?) success rate, Neivus states, one third of all white families opt out of the public system altogether. Why some of them are even forced to apply to private schools (which are apparently much easier to get into) or, dare I say… live in the suburbs!
But seriously, let’s look at the facts.
White enrollment in SF has remained pretty static for the last 40+ years. Data from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, shows despite changes in the SFUSD enrollment system in 2011, enrollment for White students has remained fairly static over the years. In fact, based on the chart below, while the number of White students has declined in our city, the proportion of White public schools students in relation to the overall White student population has actually gone up. Specifically, in 1980, one third of White children attended SF public schools, whereas in 1990 this ratio grew to just under a half.
“Was White enrollment always so low?” you might ask. “What was enrollment like before 1980?” Looking at other data, you can see White enrollment fell dramatically in the 1970’s and has remained fairly stable ever since.
So, if recent tweaks to our assignment didn’t cause these drastic changes. What did? What was going on in the 1970’s to cause the great exodus of White students from our public schools?
Can you say bussing?
In 1971, after an African-American family filed a lawsuit against San Francisco Unified’s racially segregated system, the district engaged in a court-ordered desegregation plan based on bussing. When the plan was first implemented, a full 41% of families boycotted. Two years later, SFUSD had lost a third of all its White public school students.
In the video below, three San Francisco principals share their thoughts on White Flight and racially isolated schools.
Listening to San Francisco principal Mark Sanchez (in the video), you may be surprised to hear that most Cleveland families don’t actively engage in the “choice” process of going on school tours, researching lottery odds, or attending school enrollment fairs. They just sign up for their neighborhood school and are happy overall with their enrollment experience.
This was my experience as well. Though I went to more than enough school tours, I ultimate chose schools that were under the radar. I got into my first choice, and just like that, my girls were enrolled in kindergarten.
So that leads me back to the to the families who didn’t get ANY of their choices. With roughly 70 schools to choose from, it makes me wonder. Which schools were the “Unlucky 13%” choosing?
Looking at this enrollment report, the odds do seem crazy… that is, if you are only interested in the most requested schools. Based on SFUSD enrollment reports for the current 2015-2016 school year, you can see that a family hoping for a coveted spot at Clarendon ES, would be competing with 97 other students! At these rates, enrolling in Harvard seems comparatively easy with an acceptance rate of 1 to every 17 applicants.
“Most Requested” or Most White?
So how does this relate to White Flight? Well according to a report from Priceonomics, most of San Francisco’s White students are in a small percentage of elementary schools. Here’s what the report concluded:
Half of San Francisco’s elementary schools have a student population that is 13% white or less. A few elementary schools are over 50% white, while a quarter of elementary schools are under 3.3%.
Pull out your reading glasses. Here’s how it breaks down by school. (Legend: White Students, Latino Students, Black Students, Asian Students, and Decline to State.)
Looking over the list of “whitest” schools, you will see many of the same names on the “most requested schools” list. If you separated out affluent Asian-American students vs. their lower-income newcomer peers, the above list would look even more similar to the “most requested” list. For example, Sunset Elementary (a “most requested” school) had roughly 46% Asian and 27% White students in the 2013-2014 school year. Nonetheless, only 33% of students were low-income, and only 23% were English Language Learners.
So… let’s get back to SFUSD’s original enrollment numbers again, shall we? Based on this more recent chart below, showing the percentage of White students in our public schools, roughly 28% of San Francisco’s population is White, yet only 13% go to public schools.
Based on my experience and the experience of many elementary school principals like Mark Sanchez at racially isolated schools, many black, brown and new-immigrant Asian families do not even participate in the “choice” process and are happy with their enrollment experience. So now, I’m beginning to wonder…
Is the narrative about a broken lottery and byzantine enrollment system the REAL reason for White Flight (and many of our segregated schools)? Or is this a problem of too many White (and other affluent) families requesting the same list of schools?
Want to know more about school choice and it’s impact on school segregation? Read these great articles below:
- San Francisco Schools’ Changing Demographics
- As Parents Get More Choice, S.F. Schools Resegregate
- How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students
- 3 Ways White Kids Benefit Most From Racially Diverse Schools
- Where Are All the White People in San Francisco Public Schools?
- Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools