There Are Things We Can Do Right Now to Make Oakland Schools More Equitable

Oakland’s fractious public education sector may have found some common ground.  New leadership in the OUSD enrollment office, openness to real changes at the top, and a public push for equity and integration in Oakland across the community have created a moment of opportunity.

In my view the biggest doable change we can make in the short term to increase equity is reforming the overall district enrollment processes. The devil will always be in the details—but if we look at it from the standpoint of what’s good for kids and what’s good for Oakland—rather than one of exclusively what’s good for me—I know we can get there.

A strange thing happened on the way to the office last week

My oft critic “Oakland Parents United” agreed with me on the piece I wrote about integration.  And while the arguments often seem personal, I do think that most of us really want better and more equitable schools—it’s often an argument about how to get there.  And we have real disagreements on methods.

Anyone who has looked at the recent KQED series on segregation in Oakland, should be shaking their heads at the current state of equity and integration.  Most of us believe that diverse schools are better, and anyone with a conscience would also say that concentrating all the most highly impacted kids together is probably a recipe for disaster.  But we have very segregated schools, and also schools that are hyper-segregated, by both race and class.  Schools, that if you listen to the series, are struggling to meet high needs with fewer resources.

The current rules on enrollment comfort the comforted and afflict the afflicted, to butcher a phrase.  Not only are housing patterns in Oakland explicitly formed by racist public and private practices—which we should not honor, but a whole host of rules and conditions disadvantage the disadvantaged.  Neighborhood zoning, ranked waitlists, sibling preferences, early school choice periods exercised by a few, transportation, differences in information, and capacity to navigate the system.

They all work against equity and diversity.

Our Schools Our Rules

Enrollment zoning, preferences, waitlist management, transportation, and access are all things we can control.  The school board approves the rules.   With transportation it may cost some money—but otherwise—it’s just changing rules.  Costless.

And not all preferences are insidious, some just tend to perpetuate the same or a more homogenous student body.  Look at sibling preferences, it completely makes sense that children would go to the same school—but as there are fewer available spots—some percentage of those will always be swallowed up by the existing families—which tilts the percentages towards those families, which may continue to tilt the racial balance.

Same with ranked waitlists.  Again they make sense, they give families a sense of where they are in line, allowing families to  juggle their choices.  However, thousands of families register for school after the formal enrollment deadline—over the summer.

These families will tend to have more needs, but will get the spaces left at schools that other families did not choose.  Which will tend to be weaker schools.  So those with greater needs actually get less.  I never finished my Ph.D, but that don’t make no sense.

Neither of these are intractable—you could give preference to non-sibling students for available spots that would increase diversity, or you could just re-lottery a certain percentage of saved seats at high performing schools for latecomers.  It is up to us.

Where enrollment zones for schools are set, who gets preferences, and how we engage the community are all actions in the hands of district staff and the board.  Maybe rather than big flat enrollment zones above the 13, we create some oblong zones that dip below it.

I can show you all kinds of studies on how inequitable the system is in Oakland, but anyone who is paying attention knows that.  And since we know it, we should do something.

So amidst all the rancor and disagreement—this is something that we should come to agreement on, that will actually matter for students, that doesn’t rely on the State or some funder, or whomever.

We have leadership from OUSD staff, who have already made huge progress with the Family Welcome Center, our Board Chair James Harris has also led on this issue.  So now it’s time to go out to the community, listen and understand some of the complex challenges, and make fairer enrollment a reality.

I hope that’s something we can all agree on.

What do you think?

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