Before I came to work at High Country News, I lived in San Francisco, a beautiful city of sometimes ugly contrasts, one involving education. In wealthy, cosmopolitan San Francisco, public schools are a horror.
There are many reasons why S.F. schools have largely stunk for three decades, but one of them involves settlement of a 1978 federal discrimination lawsuit. Under the settlement, S.F. schools — which had been egregiously segregated, with black students receiving abysmal educations — were integrated, which is a good thing. But under the settlement (or consent decree), kids were bused across the city, willy-nilly, so schools met racial caps.
Improvements in education, meanwhile, became an afterthought. A 1997 article I edited explained the judicial involvement this way: “(W)hile the court continued to monitor the situation and as children continued to do poorly in school, the consent decree was tinkered with time and again. Eventually, the decree specified what programs would go in which schools, who would be hired to run the programs, where those employees would be put, and what would be done if and when the programs and associated people didn’t work.”
By the time my son was ready to attend school a few years later, a lawsuit by Chinese-American parents — who alleged racial caps discriminated against their high-performing children — had technically ended the court-micromanaged strewing of kids across the city. Still, a computer formula assigned your kid to a school, which might or might not be anywhere near your home, and the assignments still seemed to correlate to someone’s notion of diversity nirvana. And, by and large, the schools still stunk, particularly for the African-American kids the lawsuit was meant to help.
If you wonder what San Francisco schools have to do with High Country News, take a look at “Salmon Justice,” Ken Olsen’s in-depth look at U.S. District Judge Jim Redden and a long-running lawsuit that deals with salmon restoration in the Snake/Columbia River Basin. Clearly, the federal government has pushed the legal envelope for years, refusing to offer up anything close to a legitimate plan for saving endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead. As a result, Redden has given clear and justified warning: If the Bush administration doesn’t put forward a viable salmon restoration plan, he may take “more dramatic actions.”
The administration’s behavior in this case — including, especially, its absurd contention that man-made dams are part of the natural environment — has been reprehensible. On the emotional level, it would be satisfying to see Redden slap the feds down, take control of the Columbia/Snake hydroelectric system, and require the breaching of a few fish-killing dams, to boot.
Just the same, I hope Redden’s measured warning alerts the relevant federal agencies (and the interest groups suing them) to a hard reality: Salmon may not thrive any better in courtrooms than schoolchildren, and judicial control can be onerous for both sides of a lawsuit. Yes, if the Bush administration continues to drag its administrative feet, Redden must take control of the river. I suspect it would be a lot better for the fish, though, if the federal government decided — at long last — to follow good science and established law, so he doesn’t have to.