Statement: “So I think what we’re trying to get at in Vision 2020 and emphasis on quality neighborhood schools, is an awareness that the goals of the Carlin case, the goals of integration, were noble goals, but the consequence is we segregated our students. In many ways our students are more segregated having come out of a couple of decades of an infrastructure built around integration,” San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera said during a meeting with district officials on Oct. 6.

Rating: Unfounded

Analysis: It’s an important time to unpack Barrera’s statement: Under way is Vision 2020, the centerpiece of which is the district’s plan to keep kids in their neighborhood schools.

If the plan backfires, it could exacerbate the racial and socioeconomic disparities that already exist.

For the past 50 years, San Diego Unified has striven for diversity by allowing a certain number of kids to transfer between schools each year, with mixed results.

Integration efforts consisted of three major prongs: magnet schools, which draw students from all neighborhoods; bus routes, which mostly took kids to schools in the north and west; and a school choice program that allows students to transfer to schools outside their neighborhoods if spots are available.

Research from 2009 found the first two efforts have helped integrate schools, but school choice offset the progress.

San Diego Unified created its first official integration plan in 1977, as an outcome of Carlin v. Board of Education. That anti-segregation lawsuit was first filed a decade prior, so let’s start in 1966.

Back then, schools were clearly divided by race. La Jolla High was 96 percent white; Lincoln High was 74 percent black and 17 percent Latino. At 125 schools across the district, 70 percent of the student body were members of the same race.

Today, 53 schools fall into that category, based on state education data. If we were to stick with this comparison, Barrera would be wrong.

But it’s not that simple. At the same time the district was taking steps to integrate, huge demographic shifts were under way.

The district’s percentage of white students declined precipitously; the percentage of black students dropped slightly and the percentage of Latinos exploded. This isn’t unique to San Diego Unified. In Western states between 1968 and 2011, the number of Latino students jumped 495 percent.

In 1966, the district was 77 percent white. Today, Latinos make up the largest student subgroup, at 47 percent (followed by white students, at 23 percent; black students, at 9 percent; and Asian students, at 8 percent).

None of this is to say that segregation levels can’t be measured, but it would take a more sophisticated kind of analysis. (And it doesn’t help matters that students in 1966 were identified by race “visually” – if students looked white, they were counted as such. If they had Spanish-sounding last names, they were “Mexican-American.”)

There’s a great deal of truth to the larger point Barrera is trying to make: One of the ways in which the district has tried to integrate schools has actually helped keep schools segregated.

A 2009 study found magnet schools and busing programs in San Diego Unified helped diversity, but school choice has actually hurt it. That is, middle- and upper-class parents who live in diverse neighborhoods – like City Heights or North Park – are more likely to take advantage of school choice and send their kids to schools where the majority of students are white.

Integration efforts took a major step backward in 2011, when the district slashed its transportation budget. The district provided fewer students with free transportation, which meant they stayed put unless their parents could bring them to a school across town.

Today, kids who remain in many neighborhood schools are likely to be poor, Latino or black, or English-learners. A school like Memorial Prep – the neighborhood school parents avoid most – is emblematic of this problem.

Barrera is right that schools today are segregated by race, class and language. But he said schools today are more segregated, and invoked the Carlin case, which was about race.

When I reached out to Barrera to see what he was basing his assertion on, he said he wasn’t referring to race – or even to poverty.

He was referring to the schools where, he said, “The only kids who go are kids whose parents aren’t making a choice to send them elsewhere. They go to the school because that’s where we tell them the school is. And that creates incredible disparity.”

Parents who go through the school choice process, he said, are more likely to be engaged. And chances are, those kids would be doing well anyway. Barrera is arguing that parent engagement – or lack thereof – creates a new and important kind of segregation.

So if neighborhood schools are able to attract these parents – those who are active in their children’s education – schools would start to improve, even if they remained segregated by race and class.

Barrera, his colleagues on the school board and Superintendent Cindy Marten deeply believe in this idea. It’s the basis of Vision 2020.

But if we stripped away the rhetoric, district officials are effectively arguing against integration. In other words, schools can be separate, so long as they’re equal.

Regardless, Barrera is right to say that parent engagement is deeply important – it’s arguably the most important factor in a student’s success.

But there is no uniform measure of parent engagement now, and there certainly wasn’t in 1966, when the district first started grappling with integration.

And for that, Barrera’s claim is unfounded.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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