'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, September 10, 2007

Race and Education 

Even in San Francisco, a lot of people don't want their children educated in schools with African Americans:

Last spring, Cal graduate student Mandy Johnson wrote a paper looking at why parents picked certain schools in the choice-based San Francisco district.

"I just thought it would be interesting," says Johnson, who is now a policy analyst for the district. "I realized that it could be explosive if I could prove this."

Working at Cal's Goldman School of Public Policy, Johnson analyzed the data from the 2006-07 school year. The two top factors correlated with high demand for a seat in a particular school were its academic performance and the availability of special classes like language immersion.

The top factors correlated with low demand were the prevalence of low-income students and - here's the really troubling one - race. Specifically, Johnson found, "as the percentage of African American students in the school increases, kindergarten demand decreases."

By the way, for those assuming this is something that can be explained away by the interplay of race and poverty, it isn't. Johnson said she used a statistical tool called regression analysis, which allowed her to isolate factors such as income and skin color. For example, the researcher found no correlation between school choice and the number of Latino students, who are disproportionately lower-income.

The consequences go beyond segregated schools, indeed, the final outcome can be no school at all in African American neighborhoods:

. . . San Francisco school board President Mark Sanchez, who is a teacher, has decided to speak up. He read Johnson's report and is attempting to use it as a way of starting a dialogue about something "our society doesn't want to talk about."

"We need to bring this out on the table and have a discussion," says Sanchez. "Nobody is going to come out and say they didn't choose a school because it had too many black kids. But they don't have to."

Sanchez isn't just interested in this as a moral issue. There's a practical matter, too. With African American families leaving San Francisco, schools are losing black students. But as Sanchez says, when students leave those predominantly black schools, "nobody is willing to fill those seats." The result is that schools in minority neighborhoods are continually threatened with closure because they are losing enrollment.

"It's a bad outcome," Sanchez says. "We know that there are so many things these kids are up against, to have their school, their community center, close is difficult."

As Chris Rosenberg, the principal at Starr King elementary observes:

Skeptics will say we are exaggerating the problem. After all, it may not be racial. Who wants to send their kid to a school in a bad neighborhood? Rosenberg admits that Starr King is not far from the Potrero housing projects.

"I get a lot of questions from parents about safety," says Rosenberg, a white man who majored in African American studies in college. "But John Yehall Chin Elementary (on Broadway) is a really good school with a lot of strip clubs around it. Do you think they get asked about safety? The fact is, people don't care so much about the environment when it does not include black people."

All in all, we shouldn't be surprised. After all, even highly educated whites tend to avoid having their children educated in schools with substantial numbers of African Americans. Rice University researchers discovered that more highly educated whites were more likely to less educated whites to select a school for their children based upon racial composition.

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