Self-Segregation in San Francisco Schools

Photo by WoodleyWonderworks,
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks,

School segregation has been the topic of social science research and public debate for decades. Still, the average person may think than in the post-Civil Rights era, when the law explicitly forbids racial discrimination, school segregation is an issue of the past. In fact, sociologists of education point to changes in demographics, living arrangements, and school funding that have lead to unforeseen issues increases in school segregation. One city in particular, San Francisco, is seeing a resurgence; the number of schools considered “racially isolated,” or over-representative of one race, has climbed there in the last few years.

A recent article in the San Francisco Public Press describes new practices that determine where students get placed and how such mechanisms can undermine diversity. Parents can apply for placement across San Francisco’s public schools, meaning that many students don’t go to school in the area they live. This enrollment fluidity may seem helpful for increasing diversity, but the ability to make informed and effective choices within school system application is nuanced and heavily influenced by who you know, what you know, and what matters to you. Parent choices, especially within particular racial or ethnic groups, can exacerbate school segregation.

The article quotes Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studies inequality and education and was involved in creating the San Francisco school-choice system (implemented in 2010). Carter uses Asian families as a case in point: “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves.” For example, a Chinese family is more likely to send their children to a school with a certain reputation; replicated across a community, it can lead to a school with a disproportionate number of Chinese students. Similarly, disproportionate concentration of students from certain income backgrounds can lead to a racially segregated student body.

If parents want to be part of segregation solution, Carter advises, “You have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest… So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.” In her view, policy makers will have to adapt legislation to account for the sociology of parent choice when trying to increase diversity in education.

Assessing Brown v. Board of Education

A memorial to the “Little Rock 9,” students who integrated the Little Rock schools in Arkansas on Sept. 23, 1957, following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Photo by Steve Snodgrass via

After more than half a century, the U.S.’s efforts to end segregation are winding down. In the years after Brown v. Board of Education, 755 school districts were under desegregation orders. But, according to a new study conducted by Stanford’s Sean Reardon and his colleagues, that number had dropped to 268 by 2009.

So, did Brown v. Board succeed? According to The Atlantic’s Sarah Garland, yes and no.

One of the hopes behind desegregation was that disparities, including decrepit buildings, lower-paid teachers, hand-me-down textbooks, and lagging achievement, would end. And, indeed, after Brown V. Board, court-ordered student reassignment plans were put into place, and the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at the most rapid rate ever recorded. While many War on Poverty programs were also being implemented, it was clear that desegregation improved outcomes for black students.

But, in many communities, desegregation came with serious sacrifices. Parents (of all races) complained about the hassles that accompanied forced busing, and often children from black families were forced to spend more time commuting. During the 1990s, several Supreme Court decisions made it easier for schools to get out of court supervision, and groups of parents and school districts went to court to fight desegregation orders. As Garland writes:

In the last decade, the speed of re-segregation has accelerated. The Bush administration took a proactive role in pushing for the end of desegregation in more than 200 districts, the Stanford study found. The districts were picked seemingly at random—on average, they still had levels of segregation in their schools that were about the same as the districts that remained under orders. “It wasn’t like in some places desegregation had done a great job and that’s why they were released and in other places there was still work to be done,” Reardon said.

In 2007, the Supreme Court restricted the use of race in school assignments in districts not under court order. Even with new ideas about how to close the achievement gap, since schools began re-segregating during the 1990s, the gap has begun to look entrenched:

The next question Reardon plans to look at is whether re-segregation led to a widening of the achievement gap. Whatever he finds, it’s unlikely that desegregation—at least in its forced-busing form—will ever experience a resurgence. A new generation of reformers has begun looking for ways to create voluntarily integrated schools in order to harness the benefits of racial and other kinds of diversity. “For the people who care about integration, we need a new set of strategies,” [Michael] Petrilli [author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma] said.