Among other measures on the November 2011 ballot is an advisory measure that would ask the San Francisco Unified School district to assign every child to the school closest to where they live. Called “Neighborhood Schools for All,” (or Proposition H), the measure was put on the ballot by parent advocates and Republican party activists.
There is a lot of genuine anger and frustration around the City about our school assignment system. I’ve talked to hundreds of parents about this issue, first as a parent of young children trying to figure out my options, then as a Parents for Public Schools enrollment coach, next as a candidate for public office, and finally as an elected official. This issue is one that constituents want to talk about more than probably any other educational issue in San Francisco.
Proponents of the neighborhood schools initiative say it “will bring quality neighborhood schools to all students,” and guarantee that all students will (assuming they want to) be able to attend schools closest to their homes. They argue that their initiative is a solution to the problem of family flight and will bring back the many affluent families who currently choose private schools. I disagree, and I’ll discuss the reasons why in a moment. First, however, it’s important to remember that the school district has just completed a two-year process of redesigning the school assignment system (a process that was not yet complete when efforts to put this initiative on the ballot began), and the current policy balances the desire of many parents to choose which school is best for their children with the feedback from some parents who want to be guaranteed schools closer to home (as long as those schools are high-performing). The current elementary school assignment process places a much higher priority on proximity to schools than we have had in over a decade.
This initiative is not the solution to the longstanding issue of too many families wanting to attend too few schools, and it’s not the solution to a persistent achievement gap. Here’s why:
- The neighborhood schools policy statement will not appreciably impact the number of affluent families who currently choose private schools; nor will it address the longstanding problem of too many students requesting too few schools: Over the last two decades, we have seen that parents are choosing from a limited, though growing, pool of schools. Prior to 2001, when the district first allowed families to choose from any school in the district, families were allowed to either attend their “attendance area” school OR participate in a choice process for a handful of so-called alternative schools. What we saw under that process was a high number of requests for a handful of high-performing attendance area schools, as well as a high number of requests for a handful of alternative schools. The number of requests for the rest of the district’s 100+ schools? Anemic. Over the past decade, after the district began implementing a full choice system, the pattern has held, but we have seen improvement in the number of requests for some previously scorned attendance area schools (Miraloma, Sherman and Alvarado are examples — each of these schools was shunned by residents of its attendance area prior to 2001, and each is now on the short list of the most-requested elementary schools in San Francisco). In other words, the district’s experience with allowing parents to submit school choices, even with less certainty of eventual assignment to those choices, has broadened the field of schools that parents are choosing. In recent years, we have seen a modest increase in the number of K applicants as well as an increase in the number of K students eventually enrolling in our schools. Today, there are routinely more requests than seats at roughly half the district’s 73 elementary schools, which is still a problem but a significant improvement over the situation a decade ago.
- The neighborhood schools policy statement will not, by itself, improve schools that are not being chosen by parents. It will have no impact on the achievement gap: San Francisco has had for many years, and continues to have, a very wide gap between the level of achievement of White and Asian students compared to the level of achievement of African-American, Latino, and Samoan students. Over the past two years, the Board of Education reviewed student achievement data from a variety of nationwide, regional and local sources, with the objective of determining how school composition influences achievement. We found that two principles held true: that schools with higher (40% +) concentrations of African-American, Latino and Samoan students tended to show the lowest achievement levels, and that Caucasian and Asian-American students do not evidence lower levels of achievement when placed in classrooms with lower-achieving students of other races. Furthermore, we found that *all* students performed better in classrooms where there was no majority race. In other words, student assignment policies that encourage racial integration do not hinder any student’s achievement and may in fact enhance many students’ achievement levels. If every student were assigned to the closest school, some schools would be less segregated, while others would be more segregated. In considering these two facts, the Board’s current assignment policy balances the desire of parents to choose which school is best for their children, as well as the evidence that integrated schools are better, on average, for all children.
- The neighborhood schools policy statement will not significantly address the problem of declining middle-class enrollment in San Francisco public schools, nor the overall problem of family flight from San Francisco: It’s not news that San Francisco has one of the lowest percentages of children under 18 of any major U.S. city. It’s also no secret that four out of five households earning over $100,000 per year send their children to private schools. School assignment has played a role in each of these trends, but it isn’t the only — nor even the defining– factor. For years, the high cost of housing has been frequently cited as a contributing factor to family flight. More recently, the faltering economy and lack of jobs has also been cited as a factor. Even though families cite the perceived quality of public schools as a factor in the decision to leave San Francisco , this doesn’t mean access to the nearest school is a part of that decision to leave. No one that I know of has conducted an analysis of whether parents who live near high-performing schools are more likely to leave, or if those parents are more likely to cite the lack of certainty in school enrollment in their decision to move elsewhere. If anything, I suspect that families who live furthest from high-performing schools are the most likely to leave the city . But as I said, I haven’t seen such a study. Affluent San Franciscans clearly believe that our public schools won’t do as good a job serving their childrens’ educational needs; based on our choice patterns I can name several schools in affluent areas that would be a “sure thing” if neighborhood residents actually requested them (Dr. William Cobb ES is one; Glen Park ES is another). Most importantly, the newest revision of the student assignment system has improved the odds of K applicants being offered space in their attendance area schools (if that is indeed what they want above all — most evidence collected by the Parent Advisory Council, Parents for Public Schools and SFUSD staff indicates that parents want schools that work for their children — proximity is a secondary consideration). Consider that in the first round of the new assignment system this past spring, just 23 percent of Kindergarten applicants listed their attendance area school as a first choice. Just 24 percent of Kindergarten applicants listed the school closest to their homes as a first choice (in some cases the attendance area school is not the closest). In fact, just 14 of our 73 elementary schools received 50 percent of first choice Kindergarten requests for 2011-12.
Finally, the policy statement is poorly written and would carry with it a number of unintended consequences. For one thing, the policy statement assumes that it is possible for families to have both the certainty of attending the closest school, while also having the opportunity of attending a specialized program like language immersion if they would rather. It would be nice to offer families both certainty and choices, but the two are inversely related as long as all schools in the district are perceived to be of unequal quality. That’s why the number of families not receiving a choice in the school lottery — about 20 percent — has stayed the same even after the new system was implemented; there are just too many requests for some schools and not enough for others, because some schools are perceived to be of higher quality than others. Only the slow but steady work of improving instruction, administration and classroom supports will change that perception — student assignment schemes of any stripe cannot. Another (perhaps more minor) flaw with the policy is that it calls for a neighborhood-based assignment system to be implemented in the current 2011-12 school year. Does a yes vote really mean the voter is advocating for students be re-assigned during the current year? Perhaps not, but there’s no way to know. In any event, such an undertaking would be chaotic and disruptive, not to mention expensive.
Anyway, all a student assignment policy can do is set rules and make sure that they are fairly applied to everyone. In our district, the policy the Board and staff spent two years developing also attempts to give everyone equitable access to disparate program offerings across the district, even while acknowledging that it’s a hardship for some families not to attend a school that is accessible to work, home or a reasonable commute on public transit. Our process was transparent and extremely public, including televised monthly committee meetings and meetings held in alternate locations — not just the board room. When we finally voted to formally adopt the policy in March 2010, there was applause and very little public comment – a far cry from some of the other controversial issues the Board has taken up.
The current system is not perfect, but it is flexible, and the Board has set up objectives and metrics to determine whether it is working as intended for families. We’ll receive our first monitoring report tonight, and after that report we’ll begin to evaluate what, if any, adjustments should be made. We’re facing some real budget challenges again this year, and in the judgment of all the board members, we’ve spent enough time on student assignment policy — it’s time to refocus on other initiatives that will improve schools across the district. Prop. H is a distraction on an issue we’ve already exhaustively examined and it comes at a time when we can least afford distractions. Please vote NO on Proposition H.