Back to School for Integration: Catch-22 of Excellence and Diversity Without Race
Asian Week, News Report, Julie D. Soo Posted: Aug 26, 2006
In 2003, John Zhao and 74 Chinese American parents stormed guards and into then-San Francisco School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s office over public school assignments for their children.
Parents were angry that their children were forced to travel across town from their Westside homes, creating family burdens and concerns for their children’s safety. Ackerman allegedly engaged in a heated embroil with the parents and called them “racists” for demanding changes in their school assignments.
Since then, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup has refused to extend a 1983 consent decree that triggered the assignments beyond the December 31, 2005 expiration date.
And at a mid-November gathering for Supervisor Fiona Ma’s state Assembly campaign, many immigrant and Chinese American parents, including Zhao, expressed great optimism at the appointment of Gwen Chan. The 38-year educator and administrator from San Francisco last February became interim and the first-ever Chinese American superintendent. Entering the post-consent decree era, Chan is being praised for defusing tough situations like averting a school strike.
The parents hope she will empathize with their struggles as immigrants in a district where Chinese Americans are the largest racial group.
According to 2005-06 SFUSD school data, Chinese Americans, make up 31.6 percent of the 57,805 total public school students, number close to both blacks and Latinos combined, at 13.7 percent and 22.0 percent, respectively.
Stuart Biegel, consent decree monitor for the state of California, has expressed concern that schools have become increasingly “resegregated.” For Biegel, the school district’s challenge is how to correct racial imbalances without focusing on race as criteria for student assignment.
One Chinese American parent who asked not be named has pored over Biegel’s reports. Rather than deal with SFUSD, he opted to send his sons to private school.
“Stuart Biegel attempts to draw a nexus between academic performance and integration,” said the parent. “That logic is flawed. The scores for schools increase where Chinese kids are sprinkled in. The [proponents of the consent decree] are using Chinese kids to mask the deficiencies of the school district’s mission of educating.”
To be sure, the resegregation is not by intent of the district, parents or community, but rather what all interviewees conceded — San Francisco’s unique racial profile and changed demographics over the last census: a minority-majority population with many Chinese Americans.
Indeed, if demographers are correct, Latinos and Chinese will continue to dominate growth in California and cities like San Francisco, while whites and blacks continue to drop. In 2000, APAs grew the fastest in the state, by 54 percent in just one decade. APAs now make up more than one-third of San Francisco, and about 13 percent of California. Chinese Americans comprised one-fifth of the city. In contrast, the city’s black population declined to about just 9 percent.
Surprisingly, Biegel’s reports fail to mention these demographic realities and, for example, the growth of Chinese Americans in almost every San Francisco neighborhood, including areas that traditionally had few or no Asians such as Bayview Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley. Today, blacks and APAs have roughly the same populations in these two neighborhoods.
But back in 1983, many more blacks lived in Bayview and Visitacion Valley. That same year, San Francisco was ordered to integrate its schools because blacks had been segregated. Racial quotas were established requiring that no racial group become the majority at any school. However, with the increasing Chinese population and decreasing black populations in San Francisco, many schools — particularly one of the nation’s leading academic high schools, Lowell — exceeded the 40 or 45 percent quotas.
In order to racially balance schools, criteria (e.g., test scores and grades) were raised for Chinese American students at popular schools. Chinese American families cried foul and sued for being discriminated against.
A Community Advisory Committee on Student Assignment was formed in April 2004 to review the student assignment process, hold community hearings, and offer three options for the 2006-07 school year. In a report 10 months later, CACSA recommended that obsolete “attendance areas” be revised “on the basis of current demographic information.” The three options ranged from reserving seats by attendance areas and using student achievement index factors to a pure random lottery.
“I hope that the school board returns the emphasis to strong neighborhood schools in every neighborhood,” said Doug Chan, a candidate to suceed Fiona Ma for District 4 Supervisor. Chan, an attorney whose oldest son attends Lowell High School, organized legal opposition against racial quotas of Chinese Americans in public schools.
To date, the school board has not adopted a plan. Three of seven members are Chinese American: Norman Yee, Eddie Chin and Eric Mar.
“The school board really wasted the time of the community advisory group that they had appointed,” said Ed Jew, a CACSA member and another candidate for District 4 Supervisor.
“The losers are our parents and children,” lamented Jew. “Something has to radically be done; something has to change for the better.”
Birth and Death of the Consent Decree
1978 – San Francisco’s NAACP, a black advocacy group, files class-action suit, charging racial discrimination and a segregated school system in San Francisco.
1983 – Consent decree is approved by U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, providing guidelines for racial/ethnic distribution of students.
1994 – Ho v. San Francisco Unified School District: Schoolchildren of Chinese descent sue, alleging racial caps under 1983 consent decree constituted racial discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
1995 – Ho plaintiffs add SFNAACP as a defendant.
1999 – Ho case is settled and modifies 1983 consent decree by creating a new, but race-neutral student-assignment plan.
2000 – Arlene Ackerman becomes school superintendent.
April 2001 – SFUSD develops “Excellence for All” five-year plan responding to court order for a race-neutral student-assignment plan. “Diversity Index” is born, which assigns students based on parent choice and socioeconomics.
2002 – Judge William Orrick, who crafted and oversaw original 1983 consent decree that gave rise to “Excellence for All,” retires.
April 2004 – Community Advisory Committee on Student Assignment starts reviewing the student-assignment process, solicit community input, and make three student-assignment options for 2006-07 schoolyear.
October 2005 – Parents begin application process for 2006-07 schoolyear.
December 2005 – U.S. Judge William Alsup denies extension of 1983 consent decree past December 31,
2005, and it expires. School board and district has no new student-assignment plan.
February 2006 – Gwen Chan becomes the interim superintendent.
April 2006 – Assignments for the 2006-07 school year are issued.
Chinese Americans Overlooked in Public Education
As civil rights activists cheered in May 2004 the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), where the nation’s highest court declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine had no place in public education, many Chinese Americans continued to feel left out of the diversity dialogue.
Indeed, the reality of race discussions — whether pertaining to education, work, housing or health care — still predominantly follow a black-white paradigm in the United States of America.
Curiously, in a city and indeed the state, where historic systematic discrimination against persons of Chinese descent has been the most virulent — perhaps more so because of the concentrated population, Chinese American history is still but a footnote.
Even California’s law students are rarely exposed to the public school cases predating Brown v. Board of Education, particularly ones involving Chinese or Latinos.
As early as 1885, the California Supreme Court upheld the right of a Chinese American girl, Mamie Tape, to a full public education in Tape v. Hurley.
In that case, Chinese immigrants Joseph and Mary Tape tried to enroll their U.S.-born daughter to San Francisco’s Spring Valley School, but principal Jennie Hurley refused to admit her, citing school board policy. Officials argued segregation was necessary since the California constitution declared Chinese to be “dangerous to the well-being of the state.”
The parents sued and the trial court ordered school officials to admit Mamie. The state’s highest court agreed, citing state law required admission of “all children.” Unfortunately, in the end, Mamie was relegated to a new “separate but equal” school by relentless school officials.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule against Chinese Americans in Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) and reinforce the separate but equal doctrine.
A father and taxpaying mercantile had filed suit for nine-year-old Martha, who was acknowledged as a U.S.-born American citizen, but denied admission to a school established for Mississippi whites. The Court implicitly accepted the separate but equal doctrine for public education, and extended black segregation to include Asian Americans: “We cannot think that the question is any different, or that any different result can be reached … where the issue is as between white pupils and pupils of the yellow race.”
Until the 1954 Brown decision, school districts could force students of a particular race to attend racially segregated schools. Typically, schools were established for whites and separate schools for all other races combined. The conundrum for San Francisco school officials in 1884 was that no separate school for Chinese American students existed for the Tape family.
Twenty years after Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court held that equal access and participation in public schools was being denied to 1,800 Cantonese-speaking children. Today, Lau v. Nichols (1974) is still the landmark case requiring public schools to offer English-language learning classes to students who are limited-English-proficient.
The first major schools case to deal with multiple racial groups would occur in 1994 when Chinese American parents sued the San Francisco Unified School District and the NAACP, claiming discrimination against their children in school assignments. In Ho v. SFUSD, parents Carl Ho, Carlene Wong Loen, and Jane Chen challenged admissions requirements that were higher for Chinese American students than other races.
That case turned on the changing faces of race in America and against a national black group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The 1983 “consent decree” settlement derived from the 1978 SFNAACP suit required the School District to have at least four racial/ethnic groups represented in each school’s student body and not to exceed 40-45 percent of any one race/ethnic group at any school.
In neighborhoods and schools with strong majority Asian populations, Chinese American children were systematically excluded from their top school choices and schools in neighborhoods they lived in.
The Ho case also pitted Chinese Americans, the largest public school population, against staunch affirmative action activists. Chinese American civil rights and “progressive” activists distanced themselves from those sympathizing with Ho plaintiffs.
The legal action brought by Chinese American parents in the Ho case resulted in Judge William Orrick’s compromise with all parties, including the NAACP. That led to the now-expired “Excellence for All” plan and the “diversity index” that substituted race by including a family’s income, primary language spoken at home, and mother’s level of education. Students would be assigned to schools according to: parent choice, siblings within the same school, students’ individualized needs, distance to home and diversity.
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