Thursday, July 28, 2005

Racial Justice and Educational Equity in SF Schools

The Struggle for Racial Justice and Educational Equity in SF Schools

100 years ago the all-white San Francisco Board of Education declared:
Our children should not be placed in any position where their youthful impressions may be affected by association with pupils of the Mongolian race.” [1905, SF Board of Education] .

In response to a 1884 lawsuit brought by Chinese immigrant parents Joseph and Mary Tape challenging the SF School District’s racial exclusion of their 8-year old daughter Mamie and other Chinese students from the all-white Spring Valley Elementary School, the School Board and Superintendent set up a separate segregated “Oriental” school where they later sent Japanese, South Asian and other students of color for generations.
Today, one hundred years later, I preside as the President of the San Francisco Board of Education. My key allies on the 7 member Board are teachers Mark Sanchez and Sarah Lipson, both leaders in SF’s Green Party and local social justice activists. A 4th board ally is early childhood education expert Norman Yee, a longtime Chinatown community leader who joined the Board earlier this year. We and the various social movements and constituencies we are working with have a daunting task ahead of us as we try to literally swim uphill making progressive policy changes in the downpour of big-business driven laws and dictates from both D.C. and Sacramento and the frustrating internal barriers from bureaucrats in our own district.

The key threats and challenges I see before us include:
Breaking down the ongoing institutionalized racism and economic inequality in the schools
Challenging privatization, big business influence and ongoing de-funding of public education
Ending the growing military recruiting and militarism in schools
Countering the increasing conservative efforts to limit democratic participation, eliminate progressives on school boards and teachers from the decision-making process and maintain a system with very limited participation from parents, students, teachers and grassroots groups

For many educators, ‘No Child Left Behind’ [NCLB] - the federal education law passed in January 2002 which imposes a punitive high stakes testing system and sets many schools and whole districts up for failure and potential takeover by voucher systems, charter schools and bureaucratic or private management companies control – is the main threat to democratic education as we know it. For an excellent breakdown of NCLB see teacher/activist and Rethinking Schools Editor Stan Karp’s “The NCLB Hoax”

[at or at ].

Harold Berlak, a senior research fellow with the Applied Research Center in Oakland, breaks down how CA’s state ‘accountability’ and high stakes testing system [including the CA High School Exit Exam] fits hand in hand with NCLB and the big business agenda. “NCLB as well as state policies that mandate standardized testing technology tied to prescribed curriculum undermines democratic values and cultural diversity,” he says.
“At the core of democracy is the commitment that ordinary people should be able to exercise their right to participate fully in making decisions that affect their lives and the life of their communities. This includes control over the public schools that educate their children. No Child Left Behind and state standardized testing mandates shift political control of schools from local communities, local governing boards, parents and teachers to state and federal governments bureaucrats, test experts, and private contractors, who are distant from classrooms and everyday school life. “ For Berlak’s primer on NCLB and CA’s testing system see
Berlak Analysis .

Author/activist Kathy Emery, longtime teacher/writer Susan Ohanian and others have laid out a troubling picture of how NCLB is only the “latest manifestation” of a campaign begun in a 1989 corporate-politico education summit which brought together a ‘Business Roundtable’ of the top 300 CEO’s in the U.S. to develop a strategy to transform public education in the corporate image.

For a lively and insightful analysis of the origins of the corporate and right wing assault on public schools see “Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?” by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian [Heinemann, 2004] and see other articles by Emery at

According to Emery by 1995, this ‘Business Roundtable’ had redefined its agenda to include “nine essential components” and by 2000 they had managed to create an “interlocking network of business associations, corporate foundations, governor’s associations, non-profits and educational institutions” that had successfully persuaded their state legislatures to adopt the first three components of their high stakes testing agenda. Emery suggests that the NCLB is “merely a more draconian version of California’s 1999 Public School Accountability Act” which began our state’s system of high stakes testing and ‘standards-based reforms’.

One other danger or pitfall progressive school board members and activists need to be wary of is what Rethinking Schools Editor Barbara Minor calls “foundation-driven reforms” from sources such as the Wal-Mart backed Walton Family Foundation, Billionaire Eli Broad’s Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, and Bill Gates’ Gates Foundation.
Minor warns that education reform initiatives around the country – “from small schools to vouchers to pay-for-performance to charters – are often instituted not because the community demanded them, but because some foundation decided to fund the initiatives.” Conservatives have been partially adept at claiming the reforms came from the bottom up, she says.

The big business and right wing assaults don’t only threaten the nuts and bolts of our existing public school system. They threaten more fundamentally what former 60's new left leader turned education professor William Ayers calls a vision of education that “embraces as principle and overarching, the aspiration of the people to become more fully human [encouraging] us towards further knowledge, enlightenment, human community, toward liberation.” That struggle for an educational system that supports the “humanization” of students and invites their transformation is what is at stake today in SF schools and throughout the country.

Racial and Economic Justice in SF Schools

Some 50 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision [ending segregation] and 30 years after the lesser known Lau v. Nichols decision [supporting bilingual education/language equality and the needs of English learners] our San Francisco schools, like most schools throughout the country, are still very unequal in terms of race, class and immigration status of the students. The UCLA based researcher that monitors SF’s progress towards integration and racial equality in August 2003 reported that more than 40 of San Francisco's 119 public schools have "severely resegregated" and cautioned against "a continuing slide toward additional resegregation."

The Board faces a key historic decision in the next term that will impact our ongoing struggle against ‘resegregation’, and for racial and economic justice in student assignment and redistribution of resources for educational equity in our district.

The SFUSD Consent Decree which came about in 1983 as the result of the NAACP lawsuit from 1978 [and several decades of struggle before that time] is set to sunset on Dec. 31, 2005 though the policy will continue through the end of June 2006 and the $40 million per year from the state for desegregation efforts in SFUSD [out of our total $600 million budget] will continue after that date.

Our district is very far off from the goals of the Consent Decree and our efforts to eliminate the ‘vestiges’ of discrimination in our schools. And, unfortunately, 51 years after the Brown decision, we have made little if any progress in closing the achievement gap and ensuring equal educational opportunities for African American, Latino and English learner students in our district. Nonetheless, the courts will be letting our district off the legal hook for ensuring equity and diversity in our classrooms. So parents, teachers, students and community groups have to keep the pressure on the district to maintain our historic commitment to educational justice in our public schools.

In the next few months the Board will to discuss and choose a new student assignment plan. The future of what our SF schools will look like demographically depends in large part on the Board’s action this coming session.
Involvement thus far has been mostly limited to insiders, legal and academic ‘experts’ and district bureaucrats with even very low level involvement from the mainstream parent organizations like the PTA and almost no involvement from grassroots parent groups or the teacher’s union United Educators of SF [UESF].
Key is the new board’s ability to maintain our commitment to racial and economic justice and redistribution of resources to bring about educational equity while acknowledging the changed demographics of the post-desegregation era. To get involved - contact: Teachers for Social Justice [ ]; Parents for Public Schools [ ];
Chinese for Affirmative Action [ ] or
Youth Making a Change [Y-MAC] [ ].

Key Opportunities

for Racial Justice
and Educational Equity
in our Schools

If Malcolm X was correct that “the future belongs to those that prepare for it today,” then we teachers, parents, students, and grassroots community folks in SF, Oakland, Richmond and other urban districts may be in even more serious trouble down the road unless we start taking advantage of key movement building opportunities that are currently before us.

It seems to me, the key opportunities for our work today include:

Supporting grassroots parent and student organizing at the local community level
Strengthening parent/teacher/community alliances, especially in low income communities
Building broader/deeper/more visionary coalitions among the scattered

and relatively weak single-issue groups
Developing an educational justice vision and movement that can connect progressive school reforms with other social and human needs

Organizations that are building our multiracial

movement for educational justice:

Teachers for Social Justice - October 15th 2005 conference -
United Educators of SF – Peace, Justice and Human Rights
Committee –
SF People’s Organization - Education Caucus
Books Not Bars
Californians for Justice –
Applied Research Center –
Education Not Incarceration -
College Not Combat –
SF Organizing Project –
Coleman Advocates/Parent Advocates for Youth/Youth
Making a Change
National Coalition of Education Activists –