San Francisco Desegregation Decree To End

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San Francisco school officials agreed last week to stop using race and ethnicity as determining factors in assigning students to school, as part of a broader settlement that will bring the district's 16-year-old desegregation plan to a close by 2002.

The deal, reached Feb. 16, headed off a trial that had been slated to start that day in a federal discrimination suit brought by a group of Chinese-American students and their parents five years ago. U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick Jr. gave preliminary approval to the deal the following day.

At week's end, the actual terms of the settlement were subject to dueling interpretations by various parties in the case. But all agreed that the district will abandon racial-balance limits for individual schools in the coming year. After that, it will devise a new student-assignment system designed to preserve racial and ethnic diversity through alternative, but as yet unspecified, means.

The agreement adds San Francisco to the growing list of districts around the country, including Houston, Boston, and Buffalo, N.Y., that have backed off the use of race-based admissions policies in the face of lawsuits. Other systems, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Arlington County, Va.; and Montgomery County, Md., are currently defending themselves against such challenges.

Despite their differences over the details--especially the precise role of race and ethnicity in future student-assignment decisions--representatives of all sides hailed the San Francisco settlement as a satisfactory compromise.

"The settlement is really positive for all of the parties involved," district Superintendent Waldemar Rojas said in an interview. "It will ensure that the district will be able to keep its focus on a desegregated, quality educational system."

Plan's End in Sight

The deal capped a lawsuit brought against the 62,000-student district in 1994 challenging the constitutionality of its race-based student-assignment scheme. The system was set up under a 1983 desegregation plan worked out to settle a lawsuit brought against the district and the state by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Until now, the desegregation plan--known as the consent decree--has been open-ended, with no specified termination point. But under the settlement, it will expire at the end of 2002 as long as the federal court approves.

When the consent decree expires, the district stands to lose annual state desegregation subsidies that this year amounted to more than $37 million of the district's nearly $300 million general-fund budget. District leaders say they intend to appeal to the legislature for funding to offset the vanishing desegregation aid.

For the coming school year, the settlement calls for the district to stop explicitly giving black and Hispanic students priority in the systemwide lotteries that determine student placement.

But the district will continue to give priority to applicants from certain neighborhoods with high concentrations of such students, as well as to students who live in publicly subsidized housing.

The district will also drop racial-balance guidelines that limit the proportion of students from any single racial or ethnic group to 40 percent at "alternative" or magnet schools that draw students from around the city, and to 45 percent at other public schools. In addition to those caps, schools have also been expected to enroll students from at least four of the groups.

Two of the Chinese-American plaintiffs in the suit had been shut out of their neighborhood schools because the limits had been reached. A third plaintiff had been denied admission to Lowell High School, the district's academic powerhouse, because of the caps.

For the long run, the settlement directs the district and the state education department to craft a new student-assignment system to take effect in the 2000-01 school year. Both the NAACP and the Chinese-American plaintiffs will have a chance to review and comment on the proposed plan.

Another provision of the settlement prohibits the district from requiring parents to identify their children by race or ethnicity when they enroll in the district, although it may request such information. That clause may complicate the district's efforts to keep track of the racial composition of each school, which it is also required to do under another provision of the agreement.

Interpretations Differ

Couched in language that in places seems ambiguous and self-contradictory, the deal represents a compromise between parties whose views on the use of race in student assignment sharply diverged. While the plaintiffs wanted the schools to adopt a colorblind posture, the district favored continued racial balancing.

Not surprisingly, the parties voiced differing interpretations of just how race and ethnicity would factor into the future student-assignment equation.

Lawyers for the Chinese-American plaintiffs hailed what they said would be the end of race-based policies in the city schools. But district officials and the NAACP stressed that the district could continue to consider race and ethnicity as long as they were not overriding factors and were used in concert with other considerations, such as a student's socioeconomic status, in determining student placement.

"Race and ethnicity is not excluded," Superintendent Rojas said. "I'm going to use race and ethnicity alongside multiple variables."

Informed of the district's view, two lawyers for the Chinese-American plaintiffs said such a reading of the settlement conflicted with theirs.

"If they say that, we're going to be fighting again really soon," said Anthony K. Lee, a lawyer representing those plaintiffs.

Another lawyer for the plaintiffs, David I. Levine, said his camp interpreted the settlement to mean that the district could maintain racial and ethnic diversity as a goal and could consider it when developing criteria to determine student placement.

For example, district officials could weigh the racial and ethnic ramifications of giving admissions preference to students from certain neighborhoods or to those who live in public housing, both factors that the district currently uses. But the actual criteria used would have to be race-neutral, Mr. Levine said.

Still, Mr. Levine stressed that such differences could be worked out in the coming months, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Rojas.

"Everybody has compromised here and we're going to make it fly," Mr. Levine said.

'Definitely' an Impact

A focal point of the suit by the Chinese-American students was the admissions system used at the prestigious Lowell High School.

Under the system in place at the time, students had to meet different minimum entrance standards--based on standardized-test results and grades--depending on their ethnic groups. Students from higher-scoring groups, such Chinese-Americans and whites, had to meet higher minimums than those from lower-scoring groups, such as African-Americans and Hispanics. Chinese-American candidates were held to the highest standards, meaning that some were denied admission despite posting higher scores than applicants from other groups who got in.

The goal of the system was to adhere to the racial-balance guidelines set forth in the consent decree, which divided students into nine racial and ethnic categories.

In response to the suit, the district modified the Lowell admissions system in 1996. The revised system does not set separate cutoff points for various ethnic groups, and fills from 70 percent to 80 percent of the freshman class with students chosen solely on the basis of their test scores and grades.

But the remaining candidates are chosen through a system that grants "diversity points" based on students' ethnicity as well as a range of other factors. Students are awarded extra points, for example, if they come from poor families, reside in public housing, or have parents who did not attend college. Black, Hispanic, or American Indian students are also given "special consideration" under the revised system.

E. Anthony Anderson, the assistant superintendent in charge of the district's desegregation program, said he expected Lowell to continue granting that preference in its admission decisions this spring because it was not specifically prohibited from doing so under the settlement. But he predicted that scrapping the racial-balance caps "will definitely have an impact" on the makeup of the next freshman class.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Pages 1, 8-9

Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as San Francisco Desegregation Decree To End
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