Report says Fresno-area schools among most economically segregated in U.S.

The income disparities between Fresno Unified and its surrounding school districts are so great that a new report labels the district among the most economically segregated in the country.

Forty-six percent of people living in Fresno Unified’s district – California’s fourth largest – are living in poverty. The district is bordered by both Clovis Unified – which has a poverty rate of 16 percent – and Golden Valley Unified, a small district in Madera County with an even lower poverty rate of 12 percent.

Fresno and Clovis are so close that their boundaries are sometimes indiscernible. Clovis West and Clovis North high schools, for example, are actually in Fresno city limits. Golden Valley’s headquarters is only 15 miles from Fresno Unified’s headquarters. But the differences between the districts are significant: While nearly 90 percent of Fresno Unified students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, only about 34 percent of Golden Valley students qualify, and 43 percent of Clovis Unified students.

The Fault Lines report released by Ed Build – a national nonprofit – names the 50 “most segregating school district borders” in the United States and criticizes the drawing of school boundaries, saying they perpetuate socioeconomic segregation.

There is no requirement that school district boundaries be evaluated or updated, which effectively traps students in poverty “while greater educational opportunities often are being enjoyed by their better-off peers right next door,” according to the report.

“District boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer  In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. While many focus on policies that will bring more resources into these underserved districts, very few question why these lines exist in the first place,” the report says.

“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control.’ We’ve created and maintained a system of schools segregated by class and bolstered by arbitrary borders that, in effect, serve as the new status quo for separate but unequal.”

The report also slams the country’s school funding system and says that by allowing schools to be funded in part by local property taxes, wealthier communities always will have better schools and programs, thus perpetuating segregation.

Property values in Clovis Unified and Golden Valley districts are higher than in Fresno Unified, and students in the wealthier districts get about twice as much in local revenue as Fresno Unified, according to the report. Fresno Unified’s local revenue for schools is $1,585 per pupil; Clovis Unified’s is $3,190 and Golden Valley’s is $3,660. However, Fresno Unified actually gets more total revenue than those districts, thanks to help from the state.

Under California’s Local Control Funding Formula – enacted in 2013 – districts with “disadvantaged pupils,” such as those living in poverty and English learners, get extra funding. Fresno Unified received $154 million under the formula this year.

But local revenue still matters, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson says, pointing to a $225 million bond measure that will be on the November ballot. If passed, the bonds will maintain the current tax rate, since taxpayers already are paying for a previous bond issue that will end at the same time.

Hanson pointed out that Measure Q, a $280 million bond measure passed in 2010, was lower than several other school bond sales across the state. Clovis Unified’s latest funding request was for $298 million in bonds that passed in 2012. Clovis Unified is home to about 40,000 students, while Fresno Unified enrolls nearly 75,000. Golden Valley has fewer than 2,000 students.

“We only went out for $280 million. Would I like to go out for more? Absolutely,” Hanson said. “But we don’t have the resources in our community that would back us up without having to raise taxes. So we have to do things differently.”

Hanson is well aware of the stark differences between his district and others, calling Fault Lines “another report reminding us of how far we have to go.”

He pointed to the district’s move to extend the school day by 30 minutes at some of its neediest elementary schools as one of the ways Fresno Unified is working to combat the struggles that come with poverty. The district also has upped its preschool and English learner investments and is focusing more on after-school programs for at-risk youths.

“We have a high concentration of poverty, so our best bet is to battle back with concentrated education. It’s not ever used as an excuse by us, and we try to combat it the best we can,” he said. “We actually feel very good that we’re pushing an 84 percent graduation rate. That’s higher than the state and nation.”

The three local districts that the report analyzes are different in more ways than just median incomes, though. State test scores released earlier this week show that Clovis Unified students are far ahead of their Fresno Unified neighbors. While 67 percent of Clovis Unified students are proficient in English/language arts, 31 percent of Fresno Unified students are proficient in the subject. Nearly 60 percent of Golden Valley students are proficient in English/language arts.

The racial makeup of these districts also is vastly different. About 10 percent of Fresno Unified students are white, while 42 percent of Clovis Unified students are white. At Golden Valley Unified, 55 percent of students are white. Comparatively, about 25 percent of California’s public school students are white.

Hanson says these differences are no coincidence.

“We are daily at the intersection between race and social class, and candidly, there are a lot of folks who don’t like that intersection. So if they have the resources, they move up and out   to suburbs and places they think are safer or whatnot,” Hanson said, pointing out that Fresno Unified recently invested in more school resource officers and gunshot-tracking technology.

“Nine out of 10 of our kids are kids of color. There can be smaller districts on my border that have almost darn near the reverse of the demographics. But we’re the biggest city on the Valley floor. We look like a lot of places, like Santa Ana and L.A. There are a lot of places that look like us, and people need to pay attention. For them to believe that just by moving away that America is not changing, I think is a pipe dream.”

Building Healthy Communities, an organization dedicated to curbing Fresno’s poverty and crime rates, focuses on the segregation surrounding the city – and also within the city. The Bullard High School community – the wealthiest part of Fresno Unified school district – has attempted to become its own district.

“We have a history of segregation and redlining in our city. We’ve been asking how do we undo this history of separating individuals by both race and income,” said Sandra Celedon-Castro, the group’s manager.

“We have to make sure that all our neighborhoods are inclusive with various housing options. Folks with lower incomes and higher incomes should be able to live in the same community and be able to access the same opportunities. When those communities are built, it allows for upward mobility of income and education.”

Celedon-Castro said that the Fault Lines report is a reminder that schools and student achievement are a result of the neighborhoods they’re built in.

“These are all things that in the past we traditionally didn’t associate with education, but they have a huge impact on how our children grow and who they will become,” she said.

“Our leaders and decision-makers need to do a better job to make sure that by the time our kids get to school they’re not already behind. We know what we’re doing now is not working.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays