Charter schools in California tend to enroll large numbers of low-income black and Latino students. That’s not surprising; from the start, that was their main mission — to provide excellent educational options to students who had been let down by unambitious and poorly run district public schools.
But in the tiny Sausalito Marin City School District, which enrolls students through eighth grade, something entirely different happened. A charter school called Willow Creek Academy in the Sausalito part of the district was allowed to enroll the vast majority of the district’s white students while another K-8 school was set up at an existing campus in less-affluent Marin City with a much larger percentage of low-income and minority students.
A state investigation found that this was no accident, and that the district “knowingly and intentionally” maintained and exacerbated a segregated school system. That should be shocking in this day and age, but we fear that’s not the case, as the nation in recent decades has lost its focus on school integration.
At Willow Creek, 42% of the students were white in 2018-19, according to the California Department of Education. At the Bayside Martin Luther King School, only 7% were white. Willow Creek’s students are substantially wealthier too; they’re less than half as likely to qualify for subsidized lunches than those at the Bayside Martin Luther King School in Marin City.
The results were sadly predictable: According to state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, Bayside MLK was stripped of money and programs shortly after it opened.
Meanwhile, according to a 2016 report, the school district provided extraordinary support to the charter school, fixing up its campus, not charging anything for use of the campus, and paying extra for Willow Creek’s special-education students, including those who attended from other school districts.
Late last week, the school district reached a settlement with the state in which the district agreed to integrate its schools and pay for scholarships, counseling and other programs for the students who were essentially robbed of an equal education. It must start desegregating in 2020-21 and complete the effort within five years or face escalating punitive measures.
The former school board’s actions “included intentional racial and ethnic segregation of schools within the district, termination of math, science, and English programs at Bayside MLK, and funding decisions that failed to deliver promised resources to the predominantly minority community of students at Bayside MLK,” Becerra’s office said in a press release.
It should be extraordinary that this battle is still being fought so many decades after the school desegregation efforts of the civil rights era, and in a liberal enclave of a liberal state. But as the debates among Democratic hopefuls have shown, the problem of school segregation is far from over. Schools are more racially segregated today than they have been in decades. And no longer are the most segregated schools in the American South; New York state has the most segregated schools for African American students, according to a May 2019 report from UCLA.
And guess where the most segregated schools are for Latino students?
“California is the most segregated for Latinos, where 58% attend intensely segregated schools, and the typical Latino student is in a school with only 15% white classmates,” the UCLA report said. That’s in part because of demographic shifts around the state, the report said, but it also stems from “the termination of desegregation efforts.”
Some districts are trying. San Francisco has turned to a lottery system that removes school boundaries and gives students a leg up on being admitted to the school of their choice if they come from a neighborhood with an underperforming school. Results have been mixed, though.
What’s more, the state has many small-to-medium-size districts that have both wealthy, white towns and lower-income communities of color within their boundaries, with drastically different racial populations at schools just a few miles from each other.
Sometimes — such as in school districts where most of the students are of one ethnic group — it’s difficult to ensure that students go to school in racially mixed classrooms. But now that the state has extracted this settlement from Sausalito Marin City, it should systematically look at districts that could be doing a much better job of integrating and providing equal educational opportunity. Studies have shown that integration results in higher achievement and college-going rates for students of color and does nothing to harm the achievement of white students.