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Fact check: Is Joe Biden right that Kamala Harris failed to act on school segregation?

Watch Joe Biden and Kamala Harris debate school segregation and racial equality

At the Democratic presidential debate on Aug. 31, 2019, Joe Biden debated Kamala Harris over school segregation and racial equality.
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At the Democratic presidential debate on Aug. 31, 2019, Joe Biden debated Kamala Harris over school segregation and racial equality.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris went at each other over racial issues during the second Democratic presidential debate last week.

Harris had accused Biden of opposing busing during the first debate. On Wednesday night, she was on the receiving end of an attack from Biden about school segregation.

“When Senator Harris was attorney general for eight years in the state of California, there were two of the most segregated school districts in the country, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco,” Biden said. “And she did not — I didn’t see a single solitary time she brought a case against them to desegregate them.”

Two things Biden said were incorrect.

First, Harris served as attorney general for six years, not eight, because of her successful senatorial bid in 2016. Second, data provided by Biden’s campaign to justify his remarks at the debate lists Oakland as one of the most segregated districts, not San Francisco.

According to 2010 data Biden’s campaign obtained from Brown University’s American Communities Project, Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified were among 25 districts — with at least 10,000 or more elementary school students — that had high rates of relative separation or integration in schools known as “black-white dissimilarity.”

Harris’ campaign did not provide any evidence that she intervened in either Los Angeles or Oakland.

Her office later highlighted a case in which she launched an investigation into the Sausalito Marin City School District after a 106-page report from August 2016 report found the district favored a charter school in Sausalito “to the detriment of (minority) students enrolled at Bayside MLK.”

According to a letter obtained by the Marin Independent Journal, the Attorney General’s Office concluded in December 2018 that the district “violated and has continued to violate the California Constitution and anti-discrimination laws with respect to Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy.” Investigators also said that “Bayside MLK is a racially segregated school, and that the district possesses the facilities and resources to operate a non-segregated school.”

Harris’s campaign also pointed to a case in which the former attorney general went after the Stockton Unified School District Police Department once she became aware of allegations police were excessively arresting youth under 18.

An investigation determined there were cases of “certain unconstitutional search and seizure practices. These policies led to students being criminalized for minor misconduct, which can result in long-term negative consequences.”

It also found that “the district’s policies and practices with respect to law enforcement referrals discriminated against black and Latino students and students with disabilities.”

Earlier this year, Attorney General Xavier Becerra reached a settlement to address system-wide violations.

Bottom Line: After getting hit in the first debate about school segregation, Biden sought to show that Harris did not do enough to address the issue in her home state. While his specific claims about racial inequity in Oakland and Los Angeles schools may have merit, his overall portrayal of Harris’s record did not tell the full story.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.
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