Two S.F. School Board Members to Introduce Resolution to End 'Lottery' System

9 min
A worker takes a lunch break during construction of a new school. (David McNew/Getty Images)

San Francisco's process for assigning kindergartners to public school is notoriously complicated. It's often called the "lottery," and some parents have long complained that it's a stressful and opaque process. Now, two San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education members are proposing the district come up with a better plan.

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, Board Commissioner Matt Haney and Board Vice President Stevon Cook plan to introduce a resolution calling for the end of the current all-choice-based student assignment system.

"No more tinkering; no more sticking with the current approach," Haney said. "We set out a couple of clear goals this system was supposed to accomplish, and it has accomplished none of those. It has not desegregated our schools. It has not provided equity in choice. And it has not been transparent or accountable to families."

The resolution calls for the district superintendent to lead a process to develop a "community-based student assignment system" that ensures students have access to an elementary school within a reasonable distance of their home, that is high quality and diverse.

"What we want to do is to have the superintendent come up with a timeline and a process to take feedback from families, to develop an analysis of what can be done to develop a better system, and to present that to the board," Haney said.

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If this resolution passes, it would ultimately be up to the next school board to determine how the new system would work. Haney is running for District 6 supervisor and may not even be on the school board after November. He doesn't think it's his place to dictate a new system.

But "I do think it's my responsibility to say, 'Hey, I've seen lots of analysis, I've heard from thousands of families, and what I can tell you for sure is that it's time to move on,' " Haney said.

While the specifics of a new system are left open in the resolution, it does lay out a few options the district could take, including:

  1. An initial or home-based assignment with choice of citywide or specialized options
  2. Individualized choice based on a family's home address
  3. A zone-based assignment within which they will have guaranteed access to a set of schools
  4. Some blended approach that best meets the needs of San Francisco families

Haney does see some non-negotiables: "Families should have access to schools that are within a reasonable distance to where they live at the elementary school level. They should have greater predictability and simplicity on how the assignment process works. And we should move forward with a system that does a better job of desegregating our schools."

When asked if he supported the resolution, SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews wrote: "As a district we're constantly looking for ways to improve our services for students and families. The board decides whether or not to move or not to move forward with resolutions proposed by Board members."

In the current system, families submit an ordered list of preferences to the school district in January and the district uses an algorithm to assign students to schools. There are preferences for students who live in low test-score areas, students who have a sibling at a school and students who live in the attendance zone of the school. The district sends assignments in March, which kicks off frenzied jockeying as parents accept the offer, enter a second round of the assignment process in hopes of getting a preferable assignment, or opt out altogether.

"Right now, what we've seen is that our current system actually facilitates segregation," Haney said. "That our neighborhoods are less segregated than our schools, and that our lottery system is actually fueling segregation. That's the great shame of all of this is that we actually designed with the best of intentions a system that we thought might desegregate, but has done the opposite."

Haney's resolution says that in the 2015-2016 school year, 30 schools had student populations with over 60 percent one race, or what the district calls "racial isolation." Since then, the number of racially isolated schools has fallen, though that may be related to demographic shifts in the city.

Haney's ideas about a community-based student assignment system are based on what he has seen in cities like Berkeley and Boston. Berkeley has attendance zones whose boundaries are carefully drawn to provide socioeconomic, family education level, and racial diversity.

"The reality is that San Francisco is a pretty small city," Haney said. "We can draw lines that cross neighborhoods and actually create very diverse attendance areas or zones, and we can, I believe, do a better job of desegregating our schools."

Haney points to the middle school feeder model as a successful example of the positive changes that can happen when families have more predictability. He says when families know where they'll be going ahead of time, they can coordinate with neighbors and work together to improve the quality of the schools.

"Right now, we're incentivizing people to make individualized choices," he said. "To do whatever they can to get to the 'best school' they can get into themselves -- as opposed to working together with your neighbors and with the school district to make sure that it's a high-quality environment for everybody."

There are certainly many families who dislike the student assignment system, but others benefit from the ability to leave neighborhoods where the schools are low-performing and attend schools in other neighborhoods. Most people would prefer to have high-quality schools nearby, making travel across the city unnecessary, but many don't believe that's a reality yet. Haney says admitting that the current system isn't working would be the first step toward a more equitable system.

"When I first got on the board I thought, hey, let's give this a chance. I like the goals. I think what we're trying to achieve here is the right thing," Haney said. "But meeting after meeting after meeting of sitting on the Student Assignment Committee, and talking to families, I've come to the conclusion that it's not working, and that an all-choice all-lottery-based system is not the best way to achieve desegregation, is not the best way to achieve diverse learning environments, and is incredibly burdensome for families."

After the resolution is introduced on Sept. 25 it will be referred to the full board for discussion and eventually a vote. Haney hopes that vote will happen before the end of the year, and feels confident that his colleagues on the school board agree with him that it's time for a change to the student-assignment process.

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