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Marin County’s Sausalito Marin City school district agrees to desegregate

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A Marin County school district agreed to desegregate its campuses Friday, after a two-year state investigation found the district had “knowingly and intentionally maintained and exacerbated” racial segregation and even established an intentionally segregated school.

Students in the district, Sausalito Marin City, are divided into two starkly different schools, according to the state Justice Department, which conducted the investigation: a thriving, racially and economically integrated charter school in the heavily white enclave of Sausalito and an overwhelmingly black, Hispanic and poor traditional public school about 1 mile away, in more diverse Marin City.

The arrangement was no accident, Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, said Friday, but a deliberate scheme by school district officials to set up a separate and unequal system that would keep low-income children of color out of a white enclave.

As part of the new agreement, the district agreed to desegregate by the 2020-21 school year, and provide scholarships and counseling to students who had been hurt by the segregation.

“Depriving a child of a fair chance to learn is wicked; it’s warped; it’s morally bankrupt, and it’s corrupt,” Becerra said. “Your skin color or ZIP code should not determine winners and losers.”

State attorneys general typically defend school systems against desegregation claims, not pursue them. In the decades after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the vast majority of desegregation agreements resulted from federal, not state, action — but in recent years, federal courts have done little to integrate schools.

In the Sausalito case, the state said the district had violated the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. The action is part of a wave of new educational equity court actions from the left that relies on state law.

The settlement is “very significant” nationally and historically, said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K-12 equity at the Century Foundation. “This is an important, relatively new avenue for the vindication of rights for students of color and low-income students.”

The settlement comes amid a growing national debate over school segregation — one that has animated the Democratic presidential primary.

Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, California and several other liberal states — New York, Maryland and Illinois — have the most deeply segregated schools in the nation. Low-income and nonwhite students who attend integrated schools perform better academically and earn more money as adults, according to research.

Two Democratic presidential candidates have publicly clashed over school segregation, with Sen. Kamala Harris of California criticizing former Vice President Joe Biden for opposing busing to integrate schools. Biden has responded that Harris, as California’s attorney general, did not pursue school segregation cases against Los Angeles or San Francisco, big cities with many segregated and struggling schools.

But the inquiry into the tiny Sausalito district began during Harris’ tenure as attorney general, noted Lily Adams, a campaign spokeswoman.

The Willow Creek charter school was founded about 20 years ago by parents in Sausalito who said they were frustrated by poor test scores in the district. Many parents were sending their children to private schools or seeking transfers to other public school districts.

But in 2013, against the wishes of many people in both Sausalito and Marin City, according to court papers, the district decided to move its elementary school from Sausalito to the campus of its middle school in Marin City. The resulting campus became Bayside-Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. Like Willow Creek, it served kindergarten through eighth grade.

At a district meeting in 2012, a district trustee, who is not named in court papers, “admitted that the plan to create separate programs for Sausalito and Marin City was motivated by a desire to create separate programs for separate communities,” according to the complaint. “This trustee also expressed it would improve community relations if students in Marin City were not ‘shipped over’ to Sausalito.”

Willow Creek, with about 400 students, prided itself on its diversity. In the 2018-19 school year, it was 41% white, 11% African American, 25% Latino and 10% Asian, according to its website. In contrast, Bayside-Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, with about 119 students, was 7% white, 3% Asian, 49% African American and 30% Latino, according to state statistics.

In court papers, the attorney general said that the district had systematically starved the school of resources, while favoring the charter school, which the children of some district officials attended. He said some of the blame rested with a superintendent who resigned in 2016, after being indicted on felony conflict of interest charges stemming from a previous job.

The district said it would start an International Baccalaureate program at the district-run school, then terminated a Spanish teacher who was essential to the program, according to court papers. It also cut music, art, physical education and counseling services. By 2015, the Bayside-MLK principal, assistant principal and about half of the teaching staff had left, the court papers say.

The district-run school did not have a qualified math teacher, while the charter school did. The district school had only a part-time counselor, while the charter school had a full-time one.

And the district was harsher in disciplining black and Hispanic students than any other public school district in the state, according to the court papers.

“The district aggravated relations between a wealthy, majority-white city and a relatively poor, majority-minority unincorporated community,” the state said.

The Sausalito case focuses attention on a hotly contested argument in policy circles: whether charter schools significantly contribute to segregation. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, also a Democratic presidential candidate, has made school integration a central tenet of his education platform. His plan blamed deepening segregation, in part, on charter schools — a divisive contention among Democrats.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed and serve about 6% of American public school students, most of whom live in cities. Supporters of charter schools point out that many of the schools were founded to provide better educational options to low-income students of color, some of whom would otherwise attend segregated traditional schools.

There has been much less attention paid to suburban charter schools like the one in Sausalito, which sometimes serve high proportions of white students.

“This is a test for the national charter school community to make sure they stamp out efforts for charters to be vehicles of white flight,” said Kahlenberg, of the Century Foundation.

The settlement, filed in state court in San Francisco, calls for the district to create a committee of students, parents, teachers, community organizations and others to help it craft a desegregation plan for the Bayside-Martin Luther King Jr. school. The settlement will not force students to attend the school, the attorney general’s office said. Rather, it will try to attract a more diverse student body by providing more enriched programs for all.

On Friday, Sausalito Marin City Superintendent Itoco Garcia said both the charter and the district had passed resolutions to explore pathways toward unifying the two schools.

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