School Choice and Integration: twitter thoughts prompted by Alvin Chang’s Vox feature “Mapping School District Gerrymandering”

This week I put out an obnoxiously long tweetstorm, regrettably using 280 far too much after reading this excellent Vox.com article by Alvin Chang informed by research by Tomas Monarrez at UC Berkeley.

The article includes an interactive mapping tool to allow readers to analyze the impact of school district attendance areas on the racial segregation of America’s schools. I have very little expertise on the subject, but I do have a pretty well developed understanding of how San Francisco Unified School District’s student assignment system works. Suffice to say that the specific tool published in Vox’s article doesn’t accurately represent the SFUSD issues with racial isolation in our public schools, but calls out many factors and features of segregation that are no less impactful in San Francisco, and I was interested enough to impart my own thoughts on this.

I published a stream of conscious commentary without any significant editing, making some irrelevant observations while leaving out important points. It’s twitter, and that’s how I use it, you know?

Anyway, more than two people said I should repost to Medium, so with this rambling preamble complete, I will expand on those thoughts using my tweets as a jumping off point rather than a straight repost.

**I am going to use a few abbreviations. Because I know that’s likely inconvenient for some readers, I will define them here:

SFUSD: San Francisco Unified School District

AA: Attendance Area

CW: Citywide School

CTIP1: Census Tract Integration Preference 1


I believe separate cannot be equal. I believe that segregation in our schools is a malignant force harmful to vulnerable children, and is neither innocent nor accidental. I believe that integration of schools is essential to repairing the injustice, trauma, and inequity inflicted by prejudice and racism. Integration will not occur spontaneously, but it must be an intentional and fundamental organizing principle of school systems.

Recently Vox.com published a worthwhile explainer written and illustrated by Alvin Chang (@alv9n) on school segregation enforced by attendance area gerrymandering. The article includes interactive maps so readers can check up on their own school districts. Checking up on SFUSD with this tool seems to indicate that the attendance areas currently in use slightly reduce racial isolation as compared how a purely closest school attendance area map would.

Reading the methodology I realized immediately that this tool doesn’t really work in the context of SFUSD. The tool makes a number of baseline assumptions which simply don’t apply to the district, and to it’s credit it recognizes that and gives a disclaimer:

[Note: This district appears to have some schools with open enrollment. This means students may be assigned schools based on factors other than geography. So this analysis may not be applicable or insightful for your district]

I need to start by explaining my understanding of what the Vox tool does, and some of the quirks particular to how the SFUSD student assignment system works which break the tool for analytical purposes.

The Vox tool works by first drawing a hypothetical attendance area map based purely on which school is closest. Census data is used to show what percentage of the student body in each AA would be African American or latino in this hypothetical. Users can compare this baseline to the shape and racial makeup of the actual attendance area map. Analysis of the discrepancies between these two maps can reveal gerrymandering to exclude African American and latino students from majority white schools. The Vox article includes a number of examples where this is starkly apparent.

But in San Francisco, much of this does not apply.

Perhaps the largest mismatch is the assumption that AA schools are made up entirely of students who live in their attendance areas.

In SFUSD, students are not required to go to their AA school. Students are in no way guaranteed to receive a placement at their AA school.

Not only are many many students attending an AA school other than their own, there is an entire category of schools without attendance areas: Citywide schools. Citywide schools are entirely missing from the Vox analysis.

SFUSD represents a remarkably diverse community of families, made up of many more racial and ethnic identities than the three considered by the Vox article. Racial isolation of communities other than African American or latino is a big part of the story of segregation of SFUSD schools not accounted for in the Vox tool. Consequently, schools made up almost entirely of a single racial identity are incorrectly indicated as not racially isolated.

SFUSD offers language pathways in several languages, which is an incredible asset to the district essential to providing quality educational opportunities to students who’s primary fluency is not english, yet this also results in concentrations of specific racial and ethnic identities. The Vox analysis does not examine language pathway options or their effects.

Having said that SFUSD doesn’t automatically assign students to their nearest school, why do we divide the city into 58 attendance areas?

In SFUSD “Attendance Area” has a different and very unintuitive meaning from what most Americans might be familiar with.

SFUSD is a “choice district” which means that every family can choose to apply for a seat at to any (or every) school in San Francisco. Parents are given the opportunity to rank their choices from most desired to least. In all there are 72 different elementary schools to choose between.

Some of these schools are way over requested, sometimes with hundreds of applicants for each kindergarten seat, and others are under-enrolled and do no receive enough applicants to fill their classrooms. How does the district decide who will get a place at the over-requested school, and who will be designated to attend an under-enrolled one?

In short, it’s complicated! It’s actually my job to explain the SFUSD student assignment system to parents, but I won’t go into every detail of the extremely convoluted process here.

To expand a bit: the assignment system is designed with a series of “tie-breakers” which give and advantage to students with certain qualifiers. First of all younger siblings are assigned to the same school their older sibling attends before any other applicants. The system also gives a preference to students who have attended a Pre-K or TK program at that school. Language immersion programs have special considerations. Random chance plays a part. Attendance Area simply gives a priority over the random assignment of applicants with no other tie-breaker. It’s possible, though unlikely, that an AA school would admit no students from it’s own attendance area.

If you spend some time looking at the AA map you’ll notice that often the attendance area school for many people is not their closest school. In many cases there will be several closer schools.

These AAs were drawn with the express intention of reducing racial isolation, but it would be hard to argue that they have achieved the goal of integrating the schools. Indeed, the demographers tasked with examining attendance areas for the district concluded it would not. In fact, their determination was that no assignment system could achieve that aim and preserve school choice. To be clear, many schools in SFUSD do genuinely represent diverse and integrated communities. My kids attend one such school.

Yet there are 17 schools in SFUSD with more than 60% of a single race or ethnic group. Racial isolation is a problem in SFUSD schools, and this has pretty much always been the case.

In many ways, the “choice district” assignment system reinforces racial isolation. White and wealthy families choose to list majority white schools and choose not to list primarily African-American schools. Chinese families choose to list primarily Chinese schools, and the same is true for Latino families.

From a certain point of view, parents are CHOOSING to keep the schools segregated. This point is underscored by the fact that a large majority of students receive either their top choice or a highly ranked choice. If more families choose to list racially isolated schools not of their own ethnicity, the current assignment system would immediately accommodate a much more integrated school district.

There is another important qualification which gives families a priority to receive the school of their choice. It is called CTIP1.

CTIP1 stands for Census Tract Integration Preference 1 (an annoyingly unhelpful acronym.) CTIP1 is the area of the city with a high probability of having students who preform in the lowest quintile of academic achievement. You can check your CTIP1 status with this slightly temperamental tool: enrollinschool.org/lookup where it is confusingly referred to as Test Score Area Tie-breaker. As far as I am aware the district has not published maps for CTIP2, 3, 4, or 5.

This area also correlates very highly with the racial segregation of the city. Most of the African American families in SF live in CTIP1. San Francisco is essentially a segregated city, and as the Vox article demonstrates, this is hardly unusual, nor is it in any way accidental. San Francisco has a long, depressing history of racial covenants, redlining and other types of discriminatory practices intended to concentrate minority populations, particularly African American and Chinese, into specific areas and exclude them from predominately white neighborhoods.

SFUSD uses the CTIP1 zone to give families residing within it a priority to receive the school of their choice. The CTIP1 priority supersedes the AA preference in the assignment system. The vast majority (96%) of CTIP1 applicants receive their first choice. In theory, this should enable African American families to choose to attend diverse schools and ameliorate racial isolation. African American families do receive their top choice school assignment at the highest rate, with 74% assigned to their top choice school. Yet extreme racial isolation of African American students persists.

SFUSD designed CTIP1 with this policy goal:

Provide equitable access to students in areas of the city with the lowest average test score; help reverse the trend of racial isolation and concentration of historically underserved students in the same school.

This policy has fallen short of the goal. Choices which are untenable logistically abound for many CTIP1 students. Families living in segregated minority areas face much higher rates of poverty. The impact of the geography and wealth inequality combine to make it much harder for families from the CTIP1 area to choose those schools which are not racially isolating even though they receive a priority and are very likely to get their top choice.

Part of solving SFUSD school segregation is solving the student transport problem. Families need reliable, accessible buses which can accommodate and support integration by design. And this brings in another part of the problem: resources.

SFUSD is an underfunded district which must also grapple with incredibly high cost of living. Teacher recruitment and retention is an overwhelming priority for SFUSD and the money for full scale bussing isn’t available. There are lots of reasons for the chronic shortage of funds to properly support our public schools *cough* Prop 13 *cough* and we should be ashamed for failing to remedy this failure.

Perhaps this shortcoming can be explained by another aspect of San Francisco’s educational landscape: the prevalence of families who choose not to be a part of SFUSD at all. Between one quarter and one third of SF students attend independent (private) schools, which are phenomenally expensive. Families who have opted out of the institution of Public Education may not be nearly as inclined to exert political pressure on behalf of public school funding.

In addition to selecting for high incomes, private schools perpetuate segregation by vastly over representing white families. San Francisco was 41% white in the last census, but only 13% of SFUSD students are white.


Although the interactive tool in the Vox article doesn’t really tell the full story of San Francisco’s segregated schools, many of the observations the author makes are still very relevant here. Alvin Chang challenges his readers to push school districts to draw attendance areas which integrate schools. In San Francisco, this is a daunting task. But integration is among the most worthwhile endeavors we can undertake as a community. There is a moral imperative inherent in this task which overrides our impulses toward choice and neighborhood school based systems.

This year SFUSD will once again be working on changes to the student assignment system. The Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment will be considering changes to elements of the system, and they face an extremely intractable problem.

They are already working explicitly to achieve a better integrated district in which all our schools represent the total diversity of the city, but they also must grapple with how school choice cuts against this goal.

Another goal of the committee is to simplify and streamline the application process.

Part of this would be a digital submission system (Applications must be presented in person, and the forms must all be manually transcribed by district staff!) designed to make the process understandable and accessible.

The current application process suffers from overwhelming complexity which intimidates and discourages parents. The intricacy of the process give rise to sometimes counterintuitive strategies which can impact families chances to be assigned to their school of choice.

Parents with resources and time to research and understand not only the system but also to tour and explore their options have an immediate and inherent advantage over families facing many challenges and stresses.

A more equitable system would ideally not have this extreme complexity, but would be straight forward and self explanatory.

Is simplification of the assignment system and integration of racially isolated schools simultaneously possible?

Those two goals might not be mutually exclusive, but perhaps they are in the context of school choice.

To underscore this point, I want to push back against an insidious semantic feature of San Francisco with regard to school choice. The application process is widely know and referred to as “The Lottery” and parents are often heard to speak in terms of having “Won” or “Lost” when they receive their placement letters. Families who have opted to enroll in independent or parochial schools sometimes describe their experience as having “lost the lottery” when they were not assigned to the school of their choice. My anecdotal impression is that for many of these families, they viewed a handful or only one school as “viable” for their students to attend.

In particular, this sentiment is expressed when families are assigned to schools they did not list on their application. When the assignment system is unable to find an available seat at any of the schools an applicant listed, the student will be assigned to the nearest under-enrolled school to their home. Under enrolled schools tend to be racially isolated, specifically with majority populations that are African American or latino. It is not hard to understand that San Francisco’s legacy of housing segregation often results in families unwillingly assigned to under enrolled schools also live far from them.

The rhetorical impact of the term “Lottery” enforces a narrative of winners and losers, and devalues and disparages those schools which are racially isolated as inherently undesirable and inferior. Further, we expect most entrants in lotteries to come away with nothing, and very few to get what they hoped for. This is extremely misleading, as the majority of applicants receive their top choice, and only a small percentage were assigned to a school they did not list at all. This inaccurate impression discourages families from engaging in a process perceived as not only difficult, but also futile.

I try to be fastidious in referring to the process by it’s actual title: Student Assignment System. Though this is a little clunky and bureaucratic sounding, it is not only more accurate but also less fraught and anxiety inducing. A new, positive and evocative way to refer to the process would be welcome.


I’d like to end by recognizing and applauding the depth of reporting and deftness of description Alvin Chang dedicated to this issue. (Not to mention the quality of the illustration and cartography, both top notch!) Many in America believe that segregation of our schools was somehow laid to rest more than sixty years ago by Brown v. Board. The facts show how little progress has really been made in that time, and the Vox explainer is a value contribution to the dialog. It is insightful, thoroughly researched, and well referenced. I hope if you have taken the time to read so far in this essay, you will dedicate as much time to Changs.

Although I have spent much of this (way too long) essay examining how this analysis can’t be applied to SFUSD, in no way do I wish to assert that the method is faulty. To reiterate, the tool published in the article notes up front in a disclaimer that it’s analysis “may not be applicable or insightful” for SFUSD. And yet it is manifestly both, if indirectly. It includes a call to action which San Franciscans must take to heart.

Finally, Chang has identified and addressed prejudice in our mental models of our cities. Poor neighborhoods and African American neighborhoods are labeled “bad” in the minds of the white and wealthy people of privilege.

This same language, same prejudice, is imposed upon our schools. Poor schools with majority African American students are thought of as “bad” schools, implied to have lousy or incapable teachers and substandard facilities and educational opportunities. In the case of SFUSD this is often a wholly inaccurate and misleading impression. Standardized test results and low academic achievement are frequently cited to underscore these beliefs. This is the pretext which is used to justify choosing to perpetuate segregation.

But I believe that this is rooted in racism. What underlies the idea of these schools being “bad” is the idea that their children will be disadvantaged or harmed by sharing a classroom with the poor kids or the black kids or the latino kids who will inevitably be “disruptive” and make it “impossible” for their children to learn.

This idea of “bad schools” is a fear that those families who have an abundance of opportunity and a legacy of privilege will not be able to preserve those privileges in integrated schools. These biases perpetuate not only the injustices and harms and disadvantages segregation inflicts, it also passes to yet another generation the groundwork of bigotry and racism.

I believe separate cannot be equal.