Can education advocates with a history of charter school support win over progressives in their efforts to close the achievement gap?

The San Francisco Unified School District continues to struggle with disparities in academic success between demographic groups, often to a greater degree than in similar communities across the state. It's an issue that will likely move to the forefront this election season, as advocates come together to bring fresh attention to the problem. The issue is often referred to as the "Achievement Gap," or alternatively as the "Opportunity Gap," depending upon which way of addressing the problem you support. The problem is nationwide, but SFUSD has seen it addressed more candidly than most.

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On October 26, members of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, along with Innovate Public Schools, a nonprofit organized to promote reforms in public education to disadvantaged groups, held a press conference on the front steps of San Francisco City Hall promoting the latter group's new report on SFUSD's persistent and worsening achievement gap. The report highlights continuing challenges to academic success, especially among Black and Latinx students, contrasting the problem with the District's overall high performance and the City's affluence.

Speaking on behalf of San Francisco’s NAACP Chair Amos Brown, Pastor Arelious Walker of the True Hope Church of God in Christ in the Bayview district described the situation as an “educational state of emergency” for the City’s African-Americans. Robvina Parker, a Bayview resident helping to raise her grandchildren through their school years, and a volunteer with Innovate Public Schools, told us, “my concern is how everything is going [in the District], and how African-American students are falling through the cracks… I want to see our test scores rise and bridge that gap."

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State Senator Scott Wiener was also present at the conference, stating: 

“Here in San Francisco, we’re creating so many great jobs in technology… We need to make sure that our own children from all communities are able to access these jobs. They should not just be for the children of wealthier families, or people who come to San Francisco for work. Right now, we're not doing enough for our own kids. We've known that we have an achievement gap in San Francisco; now we know that it is wider than we thought. To be clear, San Francisco Unified School District knows how to provide a good education, but we need to make sure that that happens for all of our children.”


After the press conference, we spoke with Thomas Maffai, Senior Research and Policy Lead at Innovate Public Schools. According to Maffai:

"We compared San Francisco to the most similar districts across the state, districts serving similar numbers and demographics, and what we find across the board in both math and English is that San Francisco is near the bottom of the list for both African-American and Latino students… both at the district level, and when we zoom in on individual schools...

We see that parents who are able to navigate the school choice system and win a spot across town in what they think is a higher performing school… still see low results for their students. We see this not only as a district problem but is one for the entire city… which has so much wealth and so many resources, … with a booming tech industry, we want our school system to be preparing students to access that economy, those high-paying jobs. Instead, we're seeing students who are falling behind early, and they’re never able to catch up by the time it comes to graduation [and entering college]… [this] really brings into question the identity of who we are as a city.”


Maffai says that the report is aimed at “pushing for bold, ambitious, district-wide reforms aimed at turning around some of the schools that are getting the lowest results for these students.” But given Innovate Public Schools’ reputation as an advocacy group for charter schools, many of those reforms may prove politically controversial.

Formed in 2012 with help from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Innovate Public Schools focuses on bringing new policy solutions for disadvantaged students to Bay Area school districts. Seed funding for the group came from the Walton Family Foundation and SVCF, along with, according to founder and CEO Matt Hammer, continuing funding from the Carnegie Endowment, John Fisher’s Silicon Schools Fund, and Michael Bloomberg.

While they do not advocate exclusively for charter schools, Innovate has organized for charter school providers Rocketship and Navigator in Santa Clara County. That’s brought the organization significant criticism from teacher unions and other progressive groups.

Here in San Francisco, progressives have generally taken the lead in addressing issues around disparity in academic success, identifying the issue with broader social justice issues. Elected officials mostly follow their lead. When current Board of Education President Matt Haney first ran for school board in 2012, he made the achievement gap a central issue in his campaign. Now Haney is one of two members of the school board running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, meaning that the issue may bleed over into that race as well, given the apparent lack of progress.

While it's likely that this new coalition will end up being at odds with parts of San Francisco’s political establishment and the school board, their reception by SFUSD administrators remains an open question. The District’s new Superintendent, Dr. Vincent Matthews, oversaw efforts aimed at reducing academic disparities at San Jose Unified during the same period that Innovate was active in Santa Clara County, and is undoubtedly familiar with what they have to offer.

Dr. Matthews addressed academic disparity issues when he spoke to the Beacon last June. In response to a request for comment on Innovate, he wrote:

"Closing the opportunity gap is ​our highest ​priority in SFUSD... We won't be satisfied until we achieve our mission of each and every student receiving the instruction and skills to thrive in the 21st century.  

We are concerned that the most recent results from state achievement tests show slow growth for our African American and Latino students. We are committed to raising academic outcomes for all of our students.  Our district has infused financial resources into serving our highest need students…

We are committed to a deliberate approach that takes into account the interplay of education with housing security, community safety, and the physical and emotional well being of students.

While the gap is wide, we are seeing some progress. For example, we've seen a significant gain in recent years in graduation rates and the percentage of our students who are graduating eligible for entry into California state universities. We also realize that more is urgently needed."

Dr. Matthews is expected to present the findings from his “listening tour” of District schools at the Board of Education meeting on November 14. Members from both SF NAACP and Innovate Public Schools plan to attend the meeting.

Meanwhile, advocates that work in close partnership with SFUSD also acknowledge that the problem exists. “The lack of progress in closing opportunity gaps within schools and across our district demands the attention all San Franciscans. We’re continuing to focus attention on building the capacity and will of San Francisco families to advocate not just for their students and schools but for the success of all students and the excellence of all public schools,” says Miranda Martin, Policy Director at Parents for Public Schools - San Francisco.

Regardless of motivations, it’s clear that Innovate’s report presents a challenge to the District and its advocates—one that should be addressed quickly and decisively. Otherwise, proponents of charter schools may start to make further political gains in one of the country’s most progressive cities.

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