Sacramento County Schools have overcome a history of racial segregation to build the modern system that exists today.
California’s first state constitution, drafted in 1849—the year before the territory was accepted as the union’s 31st state—established a system of public schools throughout the state. Over the years since, courts have ruled that education is a fundamental right ensured by that same constitution—a right not even guaranteed by the United States Constitution. In Sacramento County schools, it took until 1853 to put a county superintendent in place—another provision of the state constitution.
But he had not a single school under his jurisdiction. History records the Sacramento schools’ first superintendent’s name as H.J. Bidleman. He was a local businessman, and also the county’s tax assessor. State law at the time designated tax assessors to serve as school superintendents, so that’s what happened in Sacramento County.
It took another year, but under Bidelman’s administration the first public school in the county opened in a converted theater in February of 1854 at the corner of Fifth and K streets in the city of Sacramento—which became the permanent state capital that same year.
Two years later, the law changed. Superintendents were now to be elected. (In Sacramento schools, and four other California counties, superintendent has since reverted to an appointed position.) A local doctor, F.W. Hatch, won the office in 1855 and served three terms. By the end of his first year in office, schools had been established in 15 Sacramento County towns. And by 1870, 66 schools were open in the county, spread among 52 school districts, with an enrollment of just over 5,400 students. Countywide, 100 teachers were in charge of educating those students, which must have been quite an intense job given the ratio of one teacher for every 54 students.
The Sacramento schools were growing, but there was one glaring problem. The schools enforced strict racial segregation. African-American and Indigeneous students, as well as those of Chinese descent, were not allowed to attend the same schools as white children. The state Supreme Court, in the 1874 case Ward v. Flood, ruled that this segregation was constitutional under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Following the court decision, in Sacramento, the city school system ordered that no child of African or Indigeneous American descent could be admitted to a school there. But Sacramento City Grammar School defied the order, and received support from a Dr. G.R. Kelly, then the county superintendent.
The state’s “separate but equal” decision came 22 years before the United States Supreme Court would reach the same conclusion in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which made “separate but equal” the law of the land. Not for another 58 years, in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, would the U.S. Supreme Court reverse itself, declaring school segregation unconstitutional after all.
Segregation persisted in California until 1947, when Gov. Earl Warren—who later became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, presiding over and writing the decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case—signed a law prohibiting the odious practice.
The Supreme Court ruling and 1947 law, however, did not put an end to segregation. According to a 2019 study by the Civil Rights Project and Center for Education and Civil Rights at the University of California, Los Angeles, California is one of the four most segregated states for Black students (New York, Illinois, and Maryland are the others), and one of the three worst for Lantinx students.
The reasons for the continued segregation are complex, but according to a Sacramento Bee editorial board analysis, “Sacramento schools are no exception. Part of the blame lies with open enrollment policies.”
In 1993, the state passed one of the most expansive school choice laws in the country. The idea was to allow students access higher-quality schools than they would otherwise be assigned due to geography. Instead, “wealthier families, able to supply daily transportation to faraway schools, have an advantage over poorer families,” the Bee editors wrote.
As of the 2020-2021 school year, Sacramento County schools had an enrollment of almost 250,000 students distributed among 13 school districts, including two of the 10 largest—and three of the 15 largest—districts in the state.
Elk Grove Unified, with 64,480 students, is California’s fifth largest, though its enrollment is just a fraction of the reigning champ: Los Angeles Unified, with more than a half-million students. San Juan Unified, topping 50,000, comes in 10th and Sacramento City Unified, with about 46,600, ranks 13th.
At the other end of the spectrum is Elverta Joint School District, with just 312 students—77 percent of whom are white, none Black, and 15 percent Lantinx, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. On the other hand, Elk Grove Unified’s 66 schools have a more evenly distributed population, in terms of its racial and ethnic makeup. In that district, 30 percent of enrollees are white, 28 percent Asian, 22 percent Lantinx and 12 percent Black.
At the top of the county’s sprawling educational system, Superintendent David W. Gordon has presided over the County Office of Education since 2004, after a decade in the top job at Elk Grove Unified. Gordon is one of only five county superintendents in California who are not required to face voters to gain or keep their jobs. While 53 of California’s 58 counties elect superintendents, in Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara the elected county board of education decides who gets the job. In Los Angeles County, the board of supervisors appoints the superintendent and the board of education.
Sacramento County is divided into seven “areas,” for purposes of electing education board members, who are referred to as “trustees.” Each trustee serves a four-year term. In December of 2021, the county approved a new map of the seven areas, after the redistricting process that takes place every 10 years.