A multiracial group of four elementary-age students gather on the sidewalk.
Students play in the schoolyard at Cragmont Elementary School in Berkeley. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

California schools are more segregated now than they have been for decades.

It’s a problem that the state’s reparations task force aims to address in more than 100 proposals for repairing racial harm. Its chief example of a school district that’s been successful? Berkeley Unified.

The task force report cites BUSD as a model district for maintaining a system for integrating schools that few California districts have replicated. 

Its proposal builds on Berkeley’s system, in place for decades, of assigning students to elementary school by using diversity categories and family preferences to keep schools integrated. And it goes a step further, recommending that students be allowed to transfer between districts, too.

learn more about Berkeley’s integration model

“We aren’t surprised to see Berkeley Unified referenced in the California Reparations Report,” Trish McDermott, BUSD spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement. “Since 1968, BUSD has made racial and socio-economic diversity in its schools a major goal when it pioneered a bussing plan to fully integrate our schools.” When BUSD started bussing students from the flats to schools in the hills and vice versa, it became one of the first large districts in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools.

After Proposition 209 made it illegal for California schools to consider a student’s race in enrollment, BUSD created a workaround.

Its 2004 elementary enrollment policy integrated schools by neighborhood, relying on the fact that neighborhoods tend to be segregated by race and class. Parents could still request a school, but school enrollment would take into account the racial diversity, socioeconomic status and parent education level of the 445 “attendance zones” the students came from.

BUSD faced opposition from some Berkeley parents and a conservative rights group challenged the plan in court. But in 2009, an Alameda County judge ruled in the district’s favor, opening the door for other districts to copy BUSD’s approach.

Few did. 

Researchers have determined that Berkeley’s model has been extremely effective in maintaining racial diversity between schools.

The recommendation in the final report of the California reparations task force, released in June, aims to “improve school access for African Americans, especially families including descendants of individuals enslaved in the United States, by building on the model of the Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) intra-district public elementary school admissions process.”

The idea is still very far from being realized. Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t committed to adopting any particular proposals from the task force, but stated his intention to take its recommendations “very seriously.” 

Task force’s out-of-district transfer proposal is more controversial in Berkeley

In an effort to address the residential segregation that occurs across school district boundaries, the state task force proposes that students be allowed to transfer between school districts — if doing so increases racial or economic diversity. 

Students would be offered free transportation and school districts would be given money to offset the loss in funding at the school they’re transferring out of. 

“When you carve out little areas like Piedmont, or even Berkeley, with Richmond on one side and Oakland on another side, it’s a type of segregation,” said Erika Weissinger, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in reparations. Weissinger is on BUSD’s reparations task force but said she was speaking in a personal capacity. “When you take a more regional approach, that necessarily creates more equality, because you don’t have these carve-outs for wealthier districts.”

In Berkeley, students from outside the district already attend BUSD, both by obtaining transfer permits and by using fake addresses to gain attendance, common in wealthier districts bordering ones that serve more low-income students. It’s been a controversial issue in the city.

McDermott, the BUSD spokesperson, wrote that it was too soon to state whether the district supports the proposal to implement transfers between school districts.

“Understanding short-term and long-term impacts of this recommendation would require comprehensive research and analysis and some assumptions regarding the volume of requests that would result,” McDermott wrote.

About 900 students (10% of the student body) attend BUSD on out-of-district transfer permits. These are children of BUSD employees, children whose siblings attend BUSD and permits that were granted at administrative discretion. They are subject to meet certain requirements to continue attending Berkeley schools, and last year, BUSD revoked permits from 15 students who did not meet standards for grades, behavior and attendance. District officials also verify addresses.

BUSD said that they have taken steps to curtail illegal enrollment, with district officials visiting family homes to verify that the students actually lived in Berkeley. This year, the district visited 181 homes and determined that 37 students lived outside the city.

In the past, Berkeleyside reported that some parents complained that students from out of town made classrooms crowded or that they benefited unfairly from the extra taxes residents pay, although some research shows that students brought in more in state dollars funds than they took in local tax money. 

The task force didn’t spell out how an inter-district transfer program might work in practice. It’s an idea, not a detailed policy proposal. 

Josh Daniels, an attorney who served on the Berkeley school board from from 2010 to 2018, worried that a broad policy allowing out-of-district transfers could have a negative effect on lower-performing school districts. Daniels is on BUSD’s reparations task force but said he was speaking in a personal capacity.

If, for instance, you allowed students to transfer from Oakland to Berkeley, what kind of ripple effects would that decision have? “What does that do to schools in Oakland? What does that do to the kids in those schools in Oakland who stay there?” Daniels asked. “It’s complicated.” 

California’s schools are becoming more segregated

In California, today’s schools are more segregated than they were 30 years ago. School integration peaked in 1988 and has since backslid, according to Rucker Johnson, an economist at UC Berkeley specializing in the impacts of school integration.

Resegregation, research shows, significantly impacts student achievement.

Researchers from Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project analyzed 10 years of data from thousands of school districts. Their research showed that school districts that are becoming more segregated also have worsening achievement gaps.

Segregation concentrates low-income Black students in less effective schools with less-skilled, less-experienced teachers, widening the achievement gap between white students and their Black peers. That remains true even when the state gives more money to schools serving more high-need students, research shows.

“Differential access to school quality and neighborhood conditions explain the lion’s share of racial differences in rates of upward mobility across children from low-income families,” Johnson, the UC Berkeley economist, told the task force in his witness testimony. “We need policy responses that focus on the educational opportunity of children that are not dictated by zip code, race, and color and poverty.”

Though integration is closely correlated with achievement gaps on the national scale, Berkeley’s achievement gap has remained stubbornly wide — the second-largest in the nation — despite its integrated schools.

Some question the utility of integration, but others argue outcomes would be worse without it. Plus, as the number of Black students in Berkeley shrinks each year, there is growing concern about the impact of racial isolation for those who remain.

“There’s a lot of reasons why this policy is a very good policy. And also, it’s not so simple,” Daniels said.

The integration policy is one of many recommended by the California reparations task force to address educational opportunity. 

There are at least 17 education-related reparations recommended in the task force’s 10,000-page report, including free college, hiring more Black teachers and increasing opportunities in STEM.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...