When teacher union leader Albert Shanker first championed charter schools, he envisioned them as schools that could bring children of different racial and economic backgrounds together to learn. A small but growing number of “diverse by design” charter schools are doing just that, as my Century Foundation colleagues Halley Potter and Kimberly Quick have documented.

But a more complicated story is unfolding in the Sausalito Marin City School District (SMCSD), a small school district to the north of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge. Last week, SMCSD reached a desegregation settlement with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra, having taken over an investigation into the matter begun by Kamala Harris during her own tenure as attorney general, charged that the school leaders had deliberately segregated students by creating two schools—an under-resourced traditional public school, whose students are predominantly African American and Latinx, and a better-resourced charter school, with a plurality of students from white households. Becerra said the segregation that has resulted violates the California and federal constitutions.

As I told Dana Goldstein of the New York Times last week, “This is a test for the national charter school community to make sure they stamp out efforts for charters to be vehicles of white flight.”

A Story of Two Schools

As Becerra’s legal complaint about the district explained, the school segregation in the SMCSD is by no means inevitable. The district, which serves both the more affluent community of Sausalito and the more disadvantaged Marin City, desegregated its schools in the 1960s by creating a single, integrated, K–8 system of schools. (Students have long gone to another, outside district for high school.)

But over time, school officials dismantled its integrated system and deliberately created two very different schools for its 525 K–8 students, even as community members warned that doing so would create separate and unequal schooling. Today, the Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, a traditional K–8 public school located in Marin City, has 119 students, almost 80 percent of whom are African-American and Hispanic; just 7 percent are white and 3 percent Asian-American. The Willow Creek Academy charter school, located in Sausalito, has more than 400 students, and is majority white and Asian-American. Whites constitute the largest student group (41 percent), followed by Hispanic students (35 percent), African Americans (11 percent), and Asian Americans (10 percent).

The segregation is economic, as well. Some 72 percent of students at Bayside were low-income in 2017–18, compared with 38 percent of students at Willow Creek. Half of Bayside’s students come from a nearby housing project. Despite greater levels of need at Bayside, the school board poured more resources into Willow Creek than it did into Bayside, according to Becerra’s legal complaint. As a result, while Willow Creek, for example, had a qualified math teacher and full-time counselor, Bayside did not.

A 2016 report of an independent California state agency, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, found “The support the district provides to WCA [Willow Creek Academy] far exceeds anything contemplated under current law and regulations, as well as what is reasonable and fair based on common practice.” The report went on to say that the majority of the school district’s board of trustees was “beholden” to the charter school. The report identified “a clearly biased financial arrangement that benefits WCA while harming the students of the district’s Bayside MLK school.”

Bringing Everyone Together

After reviewing the charges announced by Attorney General Becerra, the school district concluded it should settle the case rather than fight it. The court-approved settlement that followed calls for the district to come up with a school desegregation plan. One natural solution would be to find a way to merge the two schools. Willow Creek is itself nicely integrated by race and socioeconomic status, and it should be part of a larger solution that doesn’t leave Bayside as an under-resourced, segregated, and smaller sister institution.

Fortunately, as the New York Times reports, both schools have passed resolutions to “explore pathways to unifying the two schools.” One possibility would be for all students to attend Bayside for a portion of their K–8 education (say, grades K–2), and then attend Willow Creek for the remainder (in this example, grades 3–8.) The two schools are just one mile apart, so distances should not be prohibitive. The combined school population would be 33 percent white, 33 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 8 percent Asian-American.

A charter school that educates a relatively advantaged population, but fails to serve the neediest students close by, is not living up to the lofty integration ideals set out by Shanker and other early charter school supporters.

National leaders in the charter school movement should strongly support a solution that promotes the desegregation of schools in Sausalito Marin City. A charter school that educates a relatively advantaged population, but fails to serve the neediest students close by, is not living up to the lofty integration ideals set out by Shanker and other early charter school supporters.