San Francisco's school enrollment
The history of San Francisco's school enrollment is a case of the numbers telling the tales.
In the mid-1960s, nearly 94,000 children packed the city's schools. Today, there are nearly 40 percent fewer.
The decline was neither slow nor steady. There were times of abrupt
drops in enrollment and long periods of stability, depending on the era
and the politics of the day.
Most of the students disappeared in the 1970s -- before Proposition
13, and well before the reputation of California schools lost its
So why did they go?
Blame racism. Blame fear. It was a tumultuous decade in which
limited desegregation experiments sent many white families fleeing to
the suburbs, and led some Chinese American families -- temporarily --
to form their own self-described "Freedom Schools."
"Parents feared their children would become lost or confused," said
UCLA law Professor Stuart Biegel, a court-appointed monitor who oversaw
the schools' desegregation efforts for a decade.
By the end of the 1970s, San Francisco public school enrollment had sunk by 39 percent to a low of 56,862 in 1980.
During that decade, the ethnic face of the school district became more diverse and distinctly less white.
In all, the district had a net loss of about 28,000 white students.
In the late 1960s, 2 out of 5 students were white, or 41 percent. At
the end of the 1970s, fewer than 1 in 5, 18 percent, were white.
But whites weren't the only ones to flee. From the late 1960s
through the 1970s, enrollment dropped by 10,073 black students, 2,900
Latinos, 1,337 Chinese Americans and 940 Japanese Americans, school
district records show.
The irony of it all was that once a true desegregation plan was put in place in the early 1980s, students no longer fled.
Blacks then represented the largest proportion of students, at 26
percent, followed by Chinese Americans, 20 percent; whites, 18 percent,
and Latinos, 16 percent.
Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans and "other nonwhites," such
as Samoan and Southeast Asian American students, were the only groups
to grow in size during the 1970s, but none exceeded 10 percent of
enrollment, and most were fewer than 2 percent.
By 1982, enrollment had climbed back into the low 60,000s, where it remained for nearly 20 years.
So why did students stay?
It cannot be said that the 1980s were boon years for the public
schools. Prop. 13 had recently passed, severely limiting funds to
public schools across California. And in San Francisco, the NAACP's
decadelong effort to desegregate the schools culminated in a
court-ordered plan that established some of the most dramatic diversity
rules the nation had ever seen:
Not only was cross-town busing put in place, but ethnic quotas were
set for every school, and integration was required within every
There was nothing simple about the system, but the strict rules were unambiguous.
"Once things are clear to people, they make adjustments," said
Hoover Liddell, who has spent 30 years in the district doing everything
from teaching math to running the desegregation program.
Liddell said people simply got used to the idea that the world was a heterogeneous place -- and so were their schools.
But even as enrollment remained stable, ethnic groups were shifting
like tectonic plates during the 1980s and 1990s. Chinese Americans had
become the single largest group, and their enrollment soared by about
3,000 in the 1990s. White and black enrollment each declined by nearly
the same amount. Filipino Americans also lost more than 1,100 students.
Only Latinos and "other nonwhites" held steady.
And then came 2000.
That was the year housing prices took a giant 30 percent leap -- and
schools saw their first serious enrollment plunge in two decades.
Eight percent of all students have disappeared, bringing current
enrollment at all district- and county-run schools down to 57,675
students -- nearly as low as in 1980.