The Great Disconnect of 2021 Test Case, Part 1 – Sacramento Unified has Little Equity to Lose

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Last week in my first post of the year, I posited that 2021 is the Year of the Great Disconnect, making this year the most important in our lifetimes for public education.

By that, I meant that we have never seen a circumstance where there is so little overlap between what public education is offering parents and society, presented in blue, and the minimum that parents and society will accept, presented in red.

At the end of the post, I called on CharterFolk to begin devising the changes in educational approach and advocacy strategy that will allow public education to make progress on Equity and Excellence at the pace that is required to retain voter support behind public education.

In my second post of the year, I advanced Principles for How to Address the Great Disconnect of 2021. Those principles are:

  • There Isn’t that Much Equity to Lose
  • Now is the Moment to Consider All Schools Allies
  • The Words of the Moment are Agency, Accountability, Freedom, Blurring and Micro
  • This is a Crisis We Can’t Let Go to Waste on Equity

Like I did when I presented the Greatly More Public Framework and then test-applied it to a local area in Washington DC, I would like to present a local test-case showing how the four principles would help address the Great Disconnect of 2021. I thought I would do so looking at my own hometown of Sacramento. Today’s post focuses on the first of the four principles. Upcoming posts will focus on the remaining three.

I start with Sacramento for several reasons.

First, it’s my hometown and so I happen to have learned a lot about it over the years. That also means that I don’t run the risk of being perceived to be some outsider who people wonder why I’m talking about their neck of the woods.

Secondly, Sacramento Unified is the district serving our state’s capital, so its story has the potential to have significant impact on public education in California. If only we could get our legislators and other policy makers to look at Sacramento Unified truthfully, it would go a long way toward changing the discussion in our state.

Finally, this is personal to me. Amy and I have friends who work in Sacramento Unified schools. We see the toll working for the district has taken on them. Generally, they’re in a mode now of counting the days until they can retire. Even more importantly, we know and care a lot about many kids who attend schools in the district. I wrote about some of these kids in Education Inequity Shown in the Lives of One Soccer Team. It is a team where two-thirds of the players would be the first in their families to go to college, and one-third come from families who have already attended college.

What brings the Great Disconnect of 2021 home for me? Check out this picture.

Of the kids whose families have gone to college (I bet you can guess which kids those are) absolutely none of them are sending their kids to high school in Sacramento Unified. Zero.

The other kids in the picture? Aside from two families who drive up from Stockton, all the others attend Sacramento Unified schools. In other words:

Every family that has the means to get their kids out of Sacramento Unified has done so. Those without those means, have not.

It leads us to start our analysis where every analysis of public education in our country needs to start, which is with a deep understanding of the underlying truth that gave birth to the charter school movement in the first place, one that so many are pressuring us to no longer say.

What is it?

Repeat after me, CharterFolk:

Sadly, our public school system has turned out to be just not that public.

Or, in terms of preserving equity, sadly, within many of our public schools, there just isn’t that much to lose.

In last week’s posts, I expressed the unpublicness of our so-called public schools this way.

Neither equitable nor excellent.

But, by rights, this graphic doesn’t describe the reality that is Sacramento Unified. Not all school districts are the same. Some are worse than others. A more accurate rendering of where Sacramento Unified stands relative to the Equity and Excellence axes would be this:

About as low as you can go, and, sadly, not fixable.

Why not?

Because the district has been among the absolute worst offenders in terms of mismanaging its fiscal affairs such that the liabilities that have already been incurred, consistent with California’s constitution, can never be erased. And now, unconscionably, the district is putting the burden of those costs on the backs of some of California’s most vulnerable kids. And that will ripple through to diminish the quality of education that will be provided to those kids for decades to come.

The public record is replete with evidence of the district’s gross mismanagement.

The problem has literally been building for decades, with all sorts of agencies raising the alarm.

As of 2018, the District’s unfunded OPEB liabilities, “Other Post Employment Benefit” liabilities, which are the district’s obligations to pay the cost of teachers’ lifetime health benefits, have grown to $725M, 140% the district’s entire annual budget.

Unlike almost all other school districts in the state, Sacramento Unified has done nothing to reign in these costs, so they continue to grow. Meanwhile, the district’s enrollment is plummeting.

The latest estimates are that the district now serves less than 39,000 students, down from 53,000 in 2002.

In the end, we find a circumstance where fewer than 40,000 Sacramento Unified students, mostly low income and Black or Latino, are left holding the bag to the tune of over $20,000 per pupil. To service that debt will require taking thousands of dollars per year from every student in the district for decades to come.

What do parents with options do?

They move to any other school district in the county, none of which have similar unfunded liabilities, meaning that if you stay in Sacramento Unified, your kid is screwed out of thousands of dollars per year, while kids whose families move to Placer or Elk Grove or Natomas don’t have to pay a dime.

This is what happens across so much of public education in our country. Families that have more means get where they need to go. Low income families of color end up holding the bag. They end up paying for the education of kids who came before. It equates to an intergenerational theft, one that takes from the current generation, which is poorer and more black and brown, and gives to the past generation, which was more affluent and white.

Unfortunately, it only gets worse from there.

In terms of sorting kids by race and class, in elementary and middle schools the screening is done primarily through the use of attendance boundaries. More affluent white families who can afford more expensive housing gravitate to certain attendance areas. Less affluent families of color end up elsewhere. Pro Publica shows how wide the disparities are in Sacramento, with a few schools having 30% or fewer students receiving free or reduced price meals, and the vast majority of the other schools having higher than 80%.

A list of roughly one third of the schools in the district.

By the time kids go to high school, the job of sorting by race and income becomes more complicated. Many families like the higher income families on the soccer team either move to other districts or enroll their kids in private schools. To encourage as many affluent families as possible to remain, the district resorts to creating magnets using selective admissions.

Then stories like this one happen.

It’s a situation I have talked about for years.

This is how I phrased it in one speech:

Have you seen this article from Sacramento? A student attending a magnet with a severe under-representation of African American and Latino students conducted this appalling study supposedly finding that Asian and Caucasian students have higher IQ’s, and thus, the school’s selective admissions were justified. Now everybody gets all up in arms. Blame the kid. No doubt. It’s outrageous. All of that. But folks, the administration of that school is using selective admissions criteria – grades, test scores, teacher evaluations and discipline records – it knows screens out kids by race. The only difference between what the kid did and what administrators are doing is that the administrators are supposed to know better!

What puts it all in repose?

How many of the Sacramento United kids in this picture would you guess are attending a selective magnet?

Not one.

They’re either enrolled in their resident high school, or in a program tracking graduates into fields that do not require college attendance.

But not even that is the worst of it.

Because if we could track spending on the various schools that the district operates, we would see that the district almost certainly directs additional funding to the high affluence elementary and middle schools (primarily in the form of paying the cost of more experienced teachers) and to the selective magnets like typically happens in magnets across the country …

… all in the hopes of convincing more affluent families to stay.

In the end, the district does not grant admission to the kids on my son’s soccer team. And then, they go into the budgets of the schools the boys are forced to attend instead, and they take money from those schools to subsidize the very programs that the boys were denied admission to, on top of having stuck them with the district’s OPEB bill that sucks away thousands of dollars per student per year.

That is the baseline for equity in Sacramento Unified.

You tell me, CharterFolk.

Do you think there’s much equity here to lose?

Well, believe it or not, it got even worse because then COVID hit, and, as I have been writing recently, Sacramento Unified has gone on to prove itself one of the most dysfunctional school districts in the country.

It has only accelerated the exodus from the district.

Meanwhile, the entity most responsible for the mess that the district has become – the Sacramento Teachers Association – poured $380,000 into Sacramento Unified School Board races in November …

… unseating the board president …

… and solidifying their control of the district …

… allowing SCTA to dig in even further.

This is the state of public education in California’s capital city.

It is a flashing warning light that we have entered a year unlike any other.

The Year of the Great Disconnect.

When we finally realize how sadly unpublic our public schools have become.

When we fully embrace, sadly, that as far as equity goes, in many parts of our public education system, there really isn’t that much to lose.

Next week we dive into Principle 2. It’s when plans for addressing the Great Disconnect of 2021 begin to come together. Hope to see you here.