Source: National Public Radio: "All Things Considered"
The legal battle to desegregate California schools began in 1872, when 11-year-old African American student Mary Frances Ward was denied admission to her local San Francisco school because of her race. Ward and her mother sued the school board and lost. In 1874, the California Supreme Court ruled in Ward v. Flood that separate education for the races did not violate the new Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, reinforcing mandatory segregation in education.
In 1896, the ruling in Ward v. Flood was cited as legal precedent for the landmark United States Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the "separate but equal" doctrine and legally sanctioned segregation on a national scale. From the 1870s through the mid-1920s, African American and Native American plaintiffs lost their cases in California courts as the California Supreme Court upheld the segregation of the races in public school education. In 1924, the same court specified segregated schools for Native American, Chinese, Japanese, and even Mongolian students.
These legal precedents remained law until 1946, when 5,000 Mexican Americans in California won a class-action lawsuit to desegregate schools in Orange County (Mendez v. Westminster). In 1947, California governor Earl Warren signed legislation to eliminate segregation.
Governor Warren went on to become the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, presiding over Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared segregated schools unconstitutional and formally overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine. However, because the Court did not specify how schools would be desegregated, and because the power of enforcement was left to the states, many schools remained segregated. In states like California, schools were segregated not by law (de jure segregation), but as a result of segregated housing patterns, or de facto (in fact) segregation.
Between 1963 and 1981, a long and contentious legal battle to remedy de facto segregation in Los Angeles ended with a state constitutional amendment banning mandatory busing as a means of desegregating schools. School districts across the state now had to find new ways to remedy segregated schools. In 1983, an agreement was reached between the NAACP and the San Francisco Unified School District. Under the consent decree, no racial group could constitute more than 40 or 45 percent of the enrollment at any given school. Moreover, each school was required to have admit students from at least four out of nine ethnic groups.
The consent decree allowed desegregation by voluntary busing and enforced racial and ethnic diversity in San Francisco schools for the first time, but it also limited who could attend the city's top-performing schools and determined who would attend the city's lower-performing schools. In 1994, a group of Chinese American families sued the district when they discovered that there was no more room for their children at the top-ranked Lowell High School. They won; in 1999, the court ordered the district to stop using race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.
The district, left with limited alternatives, adopted a race-neutral "diversity index," intended to desegregate schools based on socioeconomic factors. The diversity index didn't satisfy all Chinese Americans. While race was no longer a factor, income was, and that meant not all middle-income Chinese Americans could go to their neighborhood schools.
Within a year of eliminating race-based admissions policies, a third of the city's schools were resegregated, meaning that 60 to 80 percent of the students in any given school were from one racial or ethnic group. Latino or African American students currently make up the majority of the district's low-performing schools, while Chinese American students make up the majority of the top three schools.
To date, the San Francisco Unified School District hasn't devised a policy acceptable to both school administrators, who want to ensure racial and ethnic balance, and those parents who want their children to attend neighborhood schools.
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