A Brief History of the San Francisco Unified School District
and the Consent Decree

by Kathy Emery
(modified from intro to chapter 7 of  The Business Roundtable and Systemic Reform)

Reconstitution was introduced as part of educational reform in San Francisco through a process by which the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), the State Department of Education (CDE), and the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP settled the latter’s 1978 desegregation lawsuit. The 1983 settlement, known as the Consent Decree, was a SFUSD-driven document reluctantly accepted by the NAACP lawyers.  The presiding judge, William Orrick, cautioned the NAACP lawyers to not go to trial since he did not see how they could win their case.  They would not be able to prove that the SFUSD intentionally promoted or maintained segregated schools.  As a result, the NAACP lawyers could demand only what the SFUSD and the CDE were willing to concede. 

The concessions were gained, however, by paying a heavy political price.  By accepting a place at the negotiating table, the San Francisco NAACP acquiesced to the exclusion of teachers, Latinos, and Asian Americans from the table.  The latter three groups all filed lawsuits during the life of the Consent Decree demanding that they, too, be parties to the desegregation settlement.  Judge Orrick consistently denied their claims, explaining to them that the San Francisco NAACP was able effectively to represent Latino and Asian American interests and the district office would represent the interests of the teachers.  This would prove illusory when lawyers representing Chinese American students filed suit against the desegregation policies of the Consent Decree.  Furthermore, as part of the Consent Decree, the district’s accountability tool for all schools (called “reconstitution”) was “shielded from the normal political process” (Ruiz-de-Velasco, 1998; p. 14).  This shut out any community influence upon reform in the district.  Hoping for the creation of an academically rigorous school in a predominantly black neighborhood, the San Francisco NAACP abandoned potential alliances with other community based groups whose various educational goals would necessarily challenge the high-stakes testing agenda.  By refusing to appeal through the normal political process, the NAACP lawyers were increasingly guided by the SFUSD district office as the court deferred to the expert advice of professional educators.

During the lawsuit, the school district agreed that there was de facto segregation and that African American students, on a multiplicity of measurements, were not succeeding in school in proportion to their numbers in the district.  The solution to these two, agreed-upon problems rested on a single shared assumption among the three parties: teachers were responsible for the failure of students in school.  The solution that incorporated this assumption into the Consent Decree was called reconstitution.  Reconstitution of a school resulted in the “vacating” of the entire faculty and staff and then hiring new teachers and administrators based on their commitment to hold low-performing students to high standards.  The most segregated part of the city with the poorest performing and most underfunded schools in the district were two neighborhoods called Bay View and Hunter’s Point.  The Consent Decree stipulated that desegregation of the Bay View and Hunter’s Point area would be achieved by reconstituting three schools and establishing two new ones (one school was added in the largely Hispanic Mission district).  Four reconstituted schools were physically renovated, brochures were made and distributed, the new staff were given six days of training, and the schools were opened with the expectation that parents from all over the city would want to send their children there.  According to the court-appointed experts, this would result in five racially diverse schools in the Bay View/Hunters Point neighborhoods (plus one in the Mission) whose success rates and reputation of academic rigor would place them among the most prestigious schools in the district. 

Since the district conceded that there were 19 racially segregated schools, they had agreed to expend resources on those schools to improve, through “targeted programs,” academic performance, attendance, dropout, expulsion, and suspension rates of all students and African American students in particular. Furthermore, the district agreed to a 45 percent cap for any of the 9 specified racial/ethnic groups in 19 regular schools and a 40 percent racial/ethnic cap for the 16 elite alternative schools.  An independent monitor was ordered by the court to evaluate annually the progress the district was making in complying with the more than 40 major stipulations required by the Consent Decree.  Since the district was never in full compliance, the NAACP lawyers periodically sued for expansion of the settlement in an attempt to apply more of the stipulations to more schools.  By 1991, the NAACP was able to convince the judge that a more thorough review of compliance was necessary.  The judge entertained nominations from each of the parties to the lawsuit for a special committee that was chaired by Gary Orfield.

 In 1992, Orfield’s committee of “experts” submitted a report to Judge Orrick in which they concluded that the district was in compliance with the racial caps but had not succeeded in closing the achievement gap between whites and African Americans.  Among the 72 specific recommendations in the Orfield report was one that the newly appointed San Francisco superintendent, Waldemar (Bill) Rojas, would pursue as his signature issue for the next seven years.  Since it appeared that test scores had improved in the reconstituted schools but not in those schools with “targeted programs,” Orfield recommended that the district begin to reconstitute three schools each year.  The parties agreed to this modification to the original Consent Decree.  From 1993 to 1998, Rojas used reconstitution “to raise expectations and increase accountability” — in other words, to implement systemic reform throughout the district. 

In 1993, Rojas directed the development of the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan (CSIP).  This was a process by which low performing schools were identified (primarily by test scores), offered resources and time, and then threatened with reconstitution if they did not improve student achievement.  In spite of skepticism and concern from principals and serious objections from teachers, Rojas placed 24 schools on the CSIP track and reconstituted ten of them from 1993 to 1997. Throughout that period, Rojas had the support of the local business community, the San Francisco NAACP, and the city’s black leadership because he was thought to be pursuing “equity and excellence” by holding teachers and principals “accountable” for the “high performance” of “all students.”  Rojas argued in his 1996 PhD thesis, in numerous press conferences, and in all the official SFUSD publications that reconstitution was responsible for raising San Francisco students’ test scores generally and minority students’ in particular. The continuing disproportionate rates of attendance, expulsions, suspensions, and dropouts, concerns over the validity of using a standardized test as the primary measure of a school’s effectiveness and creeping resegregation did not seem to tarnish the shine that Rojas was projecting upon himself. 

In 1998, however, the San Francisco teachers’ union finally forced Rojas to abandon reconstitution — a pyrrhic victory since the very next year the process of CSIP/reconstitution was institutionalized at the state level as the Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program of the Public School Accountability Act.  In response to the lawsuit brought by Brian Ho against the SFUSD in 1994, Judge Orrick decided, in 1999, to eliminate the racial caps of the Consent Decree and end all provisions of the Decree by 2002.  Rojas, reeling from increasingly vociferous accusations of district fiscal disarray, resigned as superintendent in 1999, spent six months as superintendent of the Dallas, Texas, public schools, and was fired from that post. He then moved to San Diego. 

 2000, the San Francisco school board hired Arlene Ackerman as school superintendent, basing their decision on her reputation for implementing standards-based accountability in the Washington, D.C., school district (and ignoring what she had done that led the community in DC to drive her out of town).  Systemic reform, ironically, came to San Francisco in the guise of desegregation. Yet while systemic reform planted deep roots from 1984 to 1998, desegregation made little headway, leaving the San Francisco NAACP defending the new black superintendent’s five-year, standards-based accountability plan—Excellence for All—in which “closing the achievement gap” through “high expectations” has served to legitimize the continuing under-funding and re-segregation of SF public schools. 

During Ackerman’s first three years as superintendent, she presided over curriculum changes in which teachers at “low-performing” STAR schools were forced to implement a “drill and kill” curricula and pedagogy.  She fought hard against a community driven small school movement, successfully alienating Gates Foundation money in the Fall of 2005.  When her top-down driven reforms did not improve test scores appreciatively nor close the achievement gap, Ackerman then decided to institute, with the support of the SF NAACP but over vociferous objections from the teacher’s union, Dream Schools.  Based on the Lorraine Monroe model implemented in two schools in Harlem, Dream Schools are supposed to offer greater structure and opportunities for the worst performing students in the district, implemented by a newly reconstituted staff.  By including the concept of “vacating” the original staff and hiring only those willing to take a loyalty oath to the Dream School model, Ackerman has revived the dragon of Reconstitution that UESF thought it slayed along with Rojas back in 1999.  Ackerman even called her step-by-step introduction of Dream Schools Phase I and Phase II, just as Rojas had done for each of the first two years of Reconstitution, making many in the district feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

Ackerman is leaving SFUSD in June 2006 under a cloud of community disapprobation.  She leaves behind underfunded and resegregated schools whose students, teachers and parents are reeling from poorly conceived and badly implemented policies.  She leaves for a position at Teacher’s College Columbia where, no doubt, corporate CEO’s and state governors will continue to praise her commitment to the corporate-engineered high-stakes testing agenda.