Once Again, Context Is Complicated: On Racial Tensions in San Francisco School Politics

The brouhaha over the San Francisco school board member who posted a bunch of tweets in 2016, was removed from her position as vice-president, and is now suing the school district and her other board members to the tune of a hundred million dollars, is making national news. What is not making national news is the local context.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this and this article offer good overviews).

My own opinion of the Allison Collins’ tweets is: I don’t think people should resign because of tweets they made five years ago, especially before they won an election, BUT Ms. Collins has handled this situation so badly that she should resign because of how she has behaved in 2021. Also, the teensy bit of sympathy I had for her evaporated when I learned about her ridiculous lawsuit (which I at first believed was an April Fool’s joke) which will take resources away from public school students in San Francisco.

But Allison Collins is incidental. If it wasn’t her, it would be someone else (okay, someone else might not have acted in such a spectacularly awful manner). That’s because the forces colliding in this have been around in San Francisco for decades, long before Allison Collins became part of this picture.

I remember when every graduating 5th grader in San Francisco was assigned a public middle school based on their residential address. They could apply to a different public middle school and possibly be reassigned. Shortly before I graduated from elementary school, parents were jockeying to get their children into the ‘good’ public middle schools. My mother was smug. She said that she was just going to let me go to my assigned neighborhood school, which was one of the two most prestigious public middle schools in the city. Other parents were envious that she didn’t have to lift a finger to get me into a ‘top’ middle school.

My middle school was in a predominantly Asian American neighborhood, and since I attended while the neighborhood selection system was still in place, a lot of my classmates were Asian American. (The school was not actually in my neighborhood; my neighborhood had zero public middle schools). In one class, I was the only non-Asian student (though one classmate was a biracial Vietnamese-Mexican American). That said, most of the teachers were white, though the principal was Asian American.

That other prestigious public middle school? Also in a predominantly Asian American neighborhood.

Guess who strongly objected to ending the neighborhood admissions system for public middle schools? Yep, middle class Asian American parents.

I can see both sides of this issue. On the one hand, I understand why the school district wanted to increase ‘diversity’ (though they could not explicitly aim for racial diversity due to the end of the consent decree, as explained in this article from 1999 which I recommend reading for historical context). On the other hand, I know that Asian American families worked really hard to improve the middle schools in their neighborhoods, and I understand their frustration that the fruit of their efforts was being snatched away from.

Back then, a lot of Asian Americans saw the push to end the neighborhood assignment system as an attack on them because they were too successful. And I see that now a lot of Asian American parents in San Francisco feel the same way about declarations that Lowell High School has too many Asian American students and the admissions system needs to be changed to stop so many Asian American students from being admitted.

Allison Collins’ tweets have created such a splash because a lot of Asian Americans in the school system already believed she was prejudiced against Asians and that these tweets represented Allison Collins’ saying out loud what she still believes even today (Collins’ non-apology implies that, yes, she still believes the things she said in those old tweets).

I don’t know which admissions system is best for Lowell High School. The best discussions I’ve found about this all come from Lowell’s student newspaper. Here are some fantastic articles: “The Racial Divide over Admissions” and “A new era begins: The controversial end to Lowell’s selective admissions”.

And yes, even when I was in high school (which was not Lowell), the school board talked about ending selective-based-on-academics admissions to Lowell, and parents claimed ending selective admission would ruin the ‘highest performing’ public high school in San Francisco. And ideas about race were tangled up in this mess.

While people are fighting over whether more Asian Americans or black people or Latino people should be admitted to Lowell, what about… every other high school in San Francisco? Including the private schools, because most white students in San Francisco attend private, not public, high schools. It boggles my mind that people are talking about racial diversity/segregation/desegregation of schools in San Francisco without keeping that fact front and center.

Instead of fighting over who gets admission to one high school… how about making all high schools ‘good’? Or if that’s too much to ask, at least making more of the high schools ‘good’ so that more students get to graduate from ‘good’ high schools?

A snag is that many confuse ‘prestige’ with ‘good education’… they are more concerned with the social status of a school than how much the students actually learn… I’ve gathered from a variety of sources that the classes at Lowell may not actually be better than at other public high schools, the main reason they outperform other high schools academically is that they select students based on grades and test scores. If I were a student entering high school in San Francisco now, and my only choices were Lowell and Mission, I’d probably choose Mission High School just to avoid Lowell’s high academic pressure environment (also, Mission High School is easier to reach from my home).

That said, I understand that a lot of Asian American families, including many low income Asian American families, think that the prestige of Lowell is the best way to get their children a better life. Low income Asian American immigrant families rarely have the same range of options for entering the middle class as white families who have been established in the United States for 3+ generations, so threatening the prestige of Lowell (yes, I said ‘prestige’ not ‘quality of education’) hurts them more than middle class white families. One reason my middle class white parents were fine with me not applying to Lowell is that they figured I didn’t need to go to a prestigious high school to have an okay middle class standard of life because I had other advantages. Acting like only the quality of education matters and not the prestige is a privileged position.

Also, many advocates of keeping selective-admission-based-on-academics spout anti-Black racial stereotypes, particularly the stereotype that black students are lazy and don’t study as much as Asian American students, and that is the main/only reason they don’t do as well in school. Like all racial stereotypes, this stereotype is not always true: I had black classmates who studied their butts off and Asian American classmates who blew off their schoolwork. Contrary to the anti-black stereotype, African American culture has a strong strain of promoting education. And when a student (of any race) is refusing to put effort into their studies… giving them a condescending lecture about how they need to spend more time studying will not make anything better. What would make things better? The first step is listening to them to understand their situations.

Is this post complicated and messy? Yep. That’s because this situation is complicated and messy. I may lack the insight of the talented writers of Lowell’s student newspaper (seriously, read those articles), but if I’ve convinced you that this is a messy situation with a lot of historical, political, cultural, and local context, then I’ve accomplished my mission.

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