Desegregation Is Key for School District

Photo: A school bus picks up children at Washington Elementary School as part of Berkeley Unified School District's desegregation effort.
Karen Ling/Photo
A school bus picks up children at Washington Elementary School as part of Berkeley Unified School District's desegregation effort.

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The Berkeley Unified School District desegregation program has survived extinction from lawsuits and bruising from budget cuts to remain what some experts see as a "constitutionally sound" model for the nation, in the words of a study released last month.

But despite an established program of desegregation in the district, the perennial problem of an achievement gap between white and racial-minority students lingers. The plan has also been complicated by a need to shift away from race as a basis for decisions toward parents' income and education level.

Desegregation has long been a key initiative for the district. In 1968, the district was the first of its size in the nation to voluntarily integrate the classrooms. The city was, and still is, one of the more ethnically diverse communities in the country. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000 shows that Berkeley has a higher representation of minorities than does the nation as a whole.

However, assigning individuals to certain schools according to race became illegal when California voters enacted Proposition 209 in 1996. While race could not be the sole factor of school assignment, a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld the use of diversity programs.

The desegregation plan came under fire in 2006 from a conservative organization that claimed the program was unconstitutional.

"The Pacific Legal Foundation came in to our public meetings," said district spokesperson Mark Coplan. "They accused us of not being in compliance with Prop. 209."

The lawsuit was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation not on behalf of any parent or teacher in the district, but for California taxpayers. The funding for the desegregation plan comes from the state, according to Coplan.

"We felt that the program used race in an

unconstitutional manner," said Joshua Thompson, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

The district received aid from the ACLU to fight the lawsuit, according to Coplan.

"The district hadn't spent a penny," he said. "We couldn't take resources from the classroom. However, the board was adamant about defending this. Resources came out of nowhere."

In June, the California Court of Appeals upheld the program as legal because the district applies the factors of education and income.

"We still believe that this plan is unconstitutional, but there are no current plans to bring any other lawsuits," Thompson said.

But despite a long history of desegregation, an achievement gap between white and non-white students still remains. In fact, an analysis conducted by the California Department of Education showed that the district has the widest gap in the state. This assessment is based on the 2007 results of standardized testing called the Academic Performance Index, or API.

Coplan believes the emphasis on diversity in the district was a cause of the gap in the analysis. Some students who might otherwise be going to school in Oakland, for instance, attend schools in the Berkeley district because of the desegregation efforts, Coplan said.

"We have families living in the living rooms of relatives so that their kids can go to school in Berkeley," he said. "But if they lived in Oakland, they'd be able to find housing."

The political climate of Berkeley also places emphasis on public school development and tends to raise the numbers of high-performing students even higher, according to Coplan.

"The district also has the children of Cal professors and Nobel Prize winners," he said. "Many of those most top-performing students wouldn't be anywhere near a public school in another district."

Coplan said over the past three years, the lowest performing groups' API assessment improved from 583 to 644 while the high-performing group moved from 896 to 932.

"The key is that, in both groups, everybody grew," he said.

To make the desegregation plan compliant with Prop. 209, the district's key innovation focused on the average income levels and the parents' education levels of students in certain geographical areas rather than an individual's race.

"The plan divides the city into 455 planning areas of only a few blocks each," said Francisco Martinez, former student admission and attendance director for the district. "We used 2000 Census data for parent education level and income level and then graphed that onto the city map."

The district then assigns the areas to a ranking of one through three, called a Diversity Category. The Diversity Category includes the income and education levels as well as some limited consideration of race.

"The factor of race is greatly discounted," said Bruce Wicinas, a software developer who worked on the plan. "The other two (factors) decide the great majority of the decisions."

Wicinas wrote the computer program that processes the assignment plan. This system helped remove the controversy over how students got assigned to a particular location.

"Software can be vetted," he said. "It leaves a paper trail if parents want to ask how the decision was made."

The resulting program was praised in a joint study by UCLA's Civil Rights Project and the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at UC Berkeley, published this September. The study recommended the Berkeley plan as a model for "constitutionally sound desegregation programs."

"It's an impressive and comprehensive program that allows both choice and integration," said Erica Frankenberg, research and policy director for the Civil Rights Project's Initiative on School Integration. "It's really tough to reconcile those two things."

According to Frankenberg, there has been a nationwide trend of decreasing diversity in public schools in recent years.

"I've done a lot of research on this, and this is one of the first positive stories," she said. "Our reports show increasing segregation. This is a nice change of pace."

The funding for the program's transportation costs were covered under a voluntary desegregation grant from the state, according to Coplan. But recent cuts in the state budget have necessitated a reduction in the bus system as well.

"We had to lay off two drivers," said Bernadette Cormier, the district's transportation manager. "There are 21 route combinations. Last year there were 23."

Cormier said she feels the cuts will not affect the students too much.

"We try to accommodate for students who would have to cross busy streets," she said. "My staff is pretty good at that."

As transportation manager, Cormier has some "customer service"-related contact with parents and has heard mostly positive comments.

"In general, the community really supports the plan," she said. "(The plan) achieved good outcomes; it's worth the complexity."

Solange Gould, president of the PTA at Malcolm X Elementary School, agreed that the plan is worthwhile.

"Children are learning how to be around people that are different than them, learning how to get along," she said.

Gould felt the potential benefit well exceeded the cost of the plan.

"If you think about transport as an up-front cost, the benefit for these kids 10, 20, 30 years down the road, it's a small cost," she said.


Contact George Ashworth at [email protected]

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