School Beat: Public School Assignment in San Francisco—What Works and What Doesn’t

by Lisa Schiff on November 1, 2007

Public school assignment is a hot topic in this city. The process of being assigned to a school in San Francisco, like other urban areas that combine family choice with larger assignment goals, is necessarily complicated. Providing parents the ability to express preferences for certain schools, while trying to achieve socio-economic diversity across those same schools is difficult to say the least.

Reaching those goals is made even more challenging by factors such as historically segregated neighborhoods, a public school population that demographically diverges from the general school-age population (due to middle and upper middle class, and often white, families choosing private schools over public schools) and persistent misinformation and ill-informed “playground chatter” about the overall quality of our public schools in general and any given school in particular.

This complexity has lead to an assignment process that is somewhat opaque and definitely more uncertain than the neighborhood school system most of us grew up with. In San Francisco, parents can list up to seven schools, from anywhere in the city, in order of preference. For schools for which there are more applicants than openings, the assignment program balances a set of socio-economic variables excluding race or ethnicity (this is a court-ordered requirement), such as language spoken at home and whether or not the family receives subsidies such as housing assistance. The goal is to establish as much as possible an even socio-economic mix at schools throughout the city.

The flip side of the immediate uncertainty of our assignment process is a great amount of opportunity. In this system, in large part (though not entirely), the educational opportunities we can give to our children are not constrained to be a by-product of the particular street address we call home. Before, parents could only assert their preferences for a school by moving from one neighborhood to another or by paying for (secular or religious) private school. Both of those options require access to resources not available to all.

In the SFUSD, this barrier has been significantly reduced by opening up all schools to all families and taking into account parent preference in assigning students to schools. And it is the overall good quality of our schools that provides the foundation for this. Despite all of the well-publicized challenges our schools face, there are many, many good schools to choose from everywhere in the city.

Unfortunately, until parents start seeing this reality for themselves by going on school tours and talking to currently enrolled parents, they are stuck in a scary world of rumors and old-reputations. But seeing is believing, and parents who are able to take the time to visit schools and avail themselves of information put out by organizations such as Parents for Public Schools soon find that there are a multitude of possibilities for their children.

And this is really another important piece of the process that works. Because families can express preferences and make choices, the unique character of each school can develop. Schools can be small or large, have special focuses such as language immersion or art, be highly structured or more fluid, traditional or project based. This sampling of some of the more tangible differences is significant—San Francisco’s schools are not “one size fits all,” which is important given that not all kids are the same and not all learning environments or philosophies will work equally well for each student. Parents know what kind of school they want for their children and having a variety of schools to choose from makes it more likely that they’ll find a great match.

So much in this current assignment system does work right, but not everything and unfortunately the pieces that aren’t right are serious. First, while taking parent preferences seriously means a high percentage of those who apply on-time are assigned to a school of their choice (see SFUSD data on this) there is still a significant amount of uncertainty for everyone, which for many ends when the first notification about assignment is received in the Spring, but for others is not resolved until further phases of the enrollment process.

Second, many families from disenfranchised communities are not applying on time and aren’t taking advantage of the ability to indicate choices. Although more community education work is being undertaken in this regard by the district and groups like Parents for Public Schools, there is a long-ways to go. The result is that schools that the more sought after schools are more likely to be filled by those well-versed in the process. And even though more and more schools are entering the “sought-after” category, the inequality remains. A related issue is that with the current system, we have seen an increase in segregation across schools and programs, one of the very problems the system was designed to try to eliminate.

Third, not all choices are available for all people. This is especially true for children with special needs, as in the case of limited inclusion opportunities (See a past School Beat for a more complete discussion) despite the requirement that all schools provide such opportunities. Practically speaking then, families who have special needs have an even smaller pool of schools from which to choose.

A similar constraint exists for those families who don’t have transportation to attend schools far from home. Programs and schools without school bus lines may as well not exist for some families, exposing a great degree of inequity in the current parent choice approach.

Finally, only those with a strictly Panglossian view could deny that not all schools are up to the same educational, programmatic and community standards. For a variety of reasons, from the uneven distribution of resources to the varied ability of the parent communities to be involved to the stresses of the local environment, not every school is equally strong.

So despite the aspects of the assignment system that work well, the problems are troubling enough that significant efforts are being put into developing something new. What that new approach may be is tricky though, as the goals remain the same and the alternatives are unclear. The Supreme Court has reasserted restrictions on the use of race in enrollment; parents want choices about where their children go to school; and there are still insufficient resources to go around. The school board and district staff have been working concertedly on this for over a year and community groups have studied the issue in previous years. Hopefully some hints about potential new policies will be appearing soon.

Until then, and at least for this year, we have the current system, which again, for a vast majority of families results in school assignments that work out well for their children. And no matter what system comes to replace the current one, the one factor that will remain constant is that we do have so many terrific schools that are filled with dedicated staff and are surrounded by supportive parents and community members. The schools are there for your kids, just look around.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.

Filed under: Archive