When a School Desegregates, Who Gets Left Behind?

School districts that actively desegregate their students are still an anomaly. Only an estimated 59 school districts in the country currently take significant action to do so.

Something of a consensus has formed around these efforts. Almost everyone — Democrats and Republicans — says they believe public schools should reflect the racial and economic demographics of the surrounding population. For the most part, nobody is willing to do much to accomplish this, even when they say that integration is an unassailable good.

A school desegregation effort in the wealthy city of Piedmont, Calif., both confirms and complicates these assumptions. It is one of those school districts that reflect the racist history of housing in California. There has been some resistance to its integration, but it does not come from the white parents you might expect.

On New Year’s Day in 1924,Julia Davis, a white woman from Canada, purchased a house at 67 Wildwood Avenue in Piedmont, Calif., using her son-in-law’s money. Surrounded on all sides by Oakland, Piedmont had been an island of wealth and racial exclusion since its incorporation in 1907. At that time, Oakland was aggressively trying to annex its adjoining areas. A coalition of writers, artists and wealthy businessmen in the soft hills that would ultimately become Piedmont voted to incorporate their own city as a way to ward off residential density and retain the area’s bucolic environs. By the 1920s, when Davis bought 67 Wildwood, Piedmont had more millionaires per square mile than any other city in the country.

After paying $10,000 for the home, Davis transferred it to her biracial daughter Irene Dearing and her husband, Sidney Dearing, a Black man whose parents had been enslaved in Texas. Racial covenants meant that the Dearings needed a white proxy to purchase the property. Almost immediately after moving in, they became the target of harassment by their neighbors and the nascent local government. The Piedmont police chief — a member of the Ku Klux Klan — had no interest in protecting the Dearings.

An ultimatum was issued by the City Council: The Dearings could accept $8,000 for the property and move out or the city would seize it. Sidney Dearing countered with a price of $15,000 for the value of the home and an additional $10,000 for what he called the surrender of his constitutional rights. The City Council refused his offer.

Just five months after the Dearings moved in, 500 people surrounded the home and demanded they leave. On June 4, 1924, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that a bomb “containing enough dynamite to blow up a large part of Piedmont’s residential section” was found underneath a nearby home. Three days later, a headline in The Oakland Tribune read “Dearing Menaced By Third Bomb” — Sidney Dearing had come across a lit fuse on his lawn and stomped it out. The mob, the city and the police ultimately won: Dearing sold the property in February 1925 and moved his family to Oakland.

You can still see all that history in Piedmonttoday. As of January of this year, the median sale price for a home in Piedmont was $3.25 million. Only 1.4 percent of the city’s residents were Black as of the 2020 census. This was the dream of the city’s founders: a pastoral, wealthy and exclusive municipality that still feels completely separated from Oakland.

In coastal suburban areas, this combination of wealth and a white and Asian population usually yields high-performing schools. Piedmont is no exception. All of the city’s schools boast a score of 8, 9 or 10 out of 10 on, a site that grades a school based on a wide range of factors. Nearly 90 percent of elementary-school kids in Piedmont tested at or above the proficient level in English. By comparison, only 32 percent of elementary-school kids in Oakland hit that mark.

Several years ago, nearly a century after the Dearings were expelled from their home there, Piedmont opened its exclusive school district up to kids who do not live within city limits. Now the district is seeking 200 Oakland students to enroll in its schools. When explaining this decision to The San Francisco Chronicle, the Piedmont school district’s superintendent, Randall Booker, cited the desire for more diversity in both the student body and the faculty.

Piedmont’s decision is perhaps motivated not only by good will or a desire for desegregation. The reality is that while Piedmont has gotten wealthier — a friend who grew up there and whose parents still live there described the transition as “a town of lawyers that turned into a town of tech C.E.O.s” — it also has gotten significantly older. In the 1990 census, 14.6 percent of Piedmont’s residents were over the age of 65. In 2020, that number had jumped to 21.5 percent.

A generation that normally would have put their kids through school and then retired and eventually moved out of one of Piedmont’s 5,000-square-foot mansions has decided to stay put. And there certainly aren’t high-rise apartments being built all over Piedmont, so young families who may want to move there for the schools tend to get shut out of an absurdly competitive real estate market.

As a result, the overall enrollment in Piedmont’s schools dropped to 2,464 last year from 2,692 in 2017. Before this school year, school funding in California was largely determined by a school’s attendance. But starting this year, that same funding will rely on a combination of enrollment and attendance figures. As a result, a rapidly declining population could lead to fiscal devastation, even in a place like Piedmont. The 200 new Piedmont students, then, solve two problems: lack of diversity and underenrollment.

Piedmont’s situation was created in large part by California’s Proposition 13, the 1978 law that essentially freezes property tax values at the date of purchase. The owners of a house in Piedmont purchased in, say, 1980 for $700,000 will pay only a few thousand dollars a year in taxes, even though their house may now be worth over $4 million. This not only has placed a hard cap on the amount of tax dollars that can be raised for services like public education, but it’s also resulted in neighborhoods that never turn over, especially in wealthy-homeowner areas.

To date, there has been almost no resistance to the plan to open up the district from Piedmont parents, many of whom see the need to boost enrollment and diversify the student body. This certainly is atypical for a city like Piedmont. Recently, the wealthy town of Darien, Conn., floated an idea similar to Piedmont’s, proposing that it allow 16 students from nearby Norwalk, a more diverse, working-class city, to enroll in the local kindergarten. (The proposal was ultimately voted down.) By comparison, the Piedmont plan is much more ambitious. The 200 students who live outside of the city would constitute roughly 8 percent of the Piedmont student body.

On the surface, it seems like rich white and Asian parents doing what’s been asked of them by diversity and school desegregation advocates while also trying, in their way, to abide by the standard progressive politics of the Bay Area. Plus, nobody really disputes the positive effects that integrated schools have on both white and minority-group students. There’s also the moral imperative for towns that have been built on histories of racist violence and discrimination. They can reckon with their pasts by passing substantive policies that would help share some of their amassed wealth, especially when it comes to public schools.

None of this sounds particularly controversial, and yet, the Piedmont school district has been criticized for this decision by equity-focused advocates who believe that Superintendent Booker and the school board are effectively poaching Black and Latino students from neighboring cities in an effort to shore up their enrollment numbers. And because school enrollment is a zero-sum game, Piedmont’s gains will almost certainly equal Oakland’s loss.

There’s also the question of which Black and Latino students will transfer into Piedmont. Enrolling outside your school district in California is not an easy task. Parents have to petition for their child to be “released,” a lengthy process that usually requires them to prove that some course or service is simply not being offered in the home district. So the students who will be coming to Piedmont will largely be from a self-selected group of families who want their children to attend a prestigious, well-funded and overwhelmingly white school, and who also have the time and resources to ensure their kids actually go there.

I reached out to the district to talk about the transfer program. In lieu of an interview, Booker sent me a lengthy statement that referred to a “false narrative that P.U.S.D. is aggressively poaching students — and specifically B.I.P.O.C. students — from other school districts.” Booker went on to add that while “P.U.S.D. has worked to increase diversity among its students and staff,” the transfer application process was race-blind. (That may be, but with students coming from nearby Oakland, where only 11.7 percent of the students in the public school system are white, the outcome is the same.)

What was striking about the statement was how quickly Booker seemed to be backtracking from his former statements about the district’s desire to increase diversity. His office did not grant my repeated requests for an interview, which is unfortunate given the complexity of the questions at hand.

If Piedmont’s superintendent can’t defend his own school integration attempt without falling immediately back on the language of race-blindness, how seriously should we take it in the first place?

Walter Riley, a longtime community activist and civil rights lawyer, believes the framing of integration and desegregation is too abstract. He thinks that the compelling vision of poor Black and Latino Oaklanders going to school with rich white Piedmonters distracts from what’s actually happening in Oakland schools. Charter schools (Oakland has the most charter schools, per capita, of any district in California, which has led to tens of millions of dollars in lost funding for O.U.S.D.) have placed enormous pressure on small public schools and the district as a whole. Riley, as a result, is skeptical of Piedmont’s integration campaign. “They’ll get their students, and they will help to undermine the public school system here,” he told me.

The Piedmont desegregation controversy highlights the difficulty of school integration in an educational environment ruled by scarcity and the constant threat of defunding and closures. Seemingly easy moral questions like “Should Piedmont open its schools to more Black and Latino students from the surrounding area?” are complicated by the reality that the “surrounding area” has its own need to keep those families who not only will provide invaluable resources to the school in terms of parental involvement, but also whose children boost any school’s crucial attendance figures.

If integration means that one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country takes students away from its much more diverse neighbor, thereby harming those schools, does the effort even make sense? Or to put it a bit more simply: Does anyone really want school integration anymore?

In the next edition of the newsletter, I will be writing about the Oakland Unified School District and how the proposed closing of some of the city’s schools, most of which were in Black and Latino communities, led to a prolonged hunger strike. And you will hear from progressive advocates and teachers who believe that the language of desegregation no longer applies to today’s education landscape.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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