Buying My Way Into An Oakland Public School

by Jonathan Osler

The Oakland Unified Board of Education is considering giving some families a so-called “Opportunity Ticket”, but the reality is that many children in Oakland — mine included — already have one.

My family lives in the Peralta Elementary attendance zone, and my two daughters attend school there. This year, Peralta was the highest-requested elementary school in the district. Eighty percent of students who attend Peralta live in the neighborhood, which gave those students high priority in the enrollment process (second only to applicants with a sibling at the school). The median home price in the area is over $1 million. (Incidentally, the median home price in the Oakland zip codes with the top 10 most requested K-5 schools is also nearly $1 million).

Families who can’t afford to buy or rent a home in our neighborhood would find it nearly impossible to get into our high-demand school. Not coincidentally, the percent of white students at the school has nearly tripled in just over a decade.

Green dots = Peralta students who live in the attendance zone. (Source: OUSD)

My kindergartner did not deserve the opportunity to attend Peralta any more or less than the other roughly 130 students who applied this past year. However, she entered the OUSD enrollment process with an unofficial “Opportunity Ticket” because we were able to buy a house in the neighborhood eight years ago, banking on the expectation that our children would attend the local school.

So who are the majority of kids in Oakland that already have an “Opportunity Ticket” to go to the OUSD school of their choice? It’s clear: kids like ours whose families can afford the most expensive homes, most of whom are white.

OUSD’s current student assignment system privileges families who can afford to live in the city’s most expensive neighborhoods (many of which, ours included, have a legacy of explicitly barring people of color). My interest in the Opportunity Ticket policy developed by the Oakland REACH in close collaboration with OUSD, is that it challenges our biased student assignment policies and the inequitable experiences and outcomes that system helps drive.

Like all policies, the Opportunity Ticket is imperfect, and the organizers and families advocating for it do not think it’s a silver bullet solution. And though it will help more families have access to high-demand schools, those schools are not universally “high-quality” and equitably serving all students.

But is there any possible way that it is fair that some families should essentially be able to buy their way into the local public school of their choice? Are we any more deserving of priority in the student assignment system than lower-income parents who are much more likely to have kids at schools slated for closure? Of course not.

Home prices/values surrounding Peralta Elementary School (Source: Zillow)

The damage inflicted on students and families when their schools are closed can in no way be fairly offset by giving them an “Opportunity Ticket” to another school in OUSD. Even with such a ticket, a tremendous amount of work will need to be done to ensure that schools welcoming new students don’t become numerically integrated while still failing to serve their students and families of color. And most of all, there must be significant investment across Oakland so that there are excellent, high-quality schools that families can access in their own neighborhoods.

Our system will remain highly inequitable when schools that serve the most privileged among us are considered “untouchable” and able to avoid most of the impact of school closures and budget cuts in the city. The Opportunity Ticket is one of many steps needed to redesign a system to better benefit those farthest from opportunity.

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I welcome your questions, comments, feedback, etc., below or at: jonathan.osler@gmail.com.

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