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On Privilege and School Choice

By Edmund Chun
Bret Harte Middle School PTSA President

With two children in the middle of Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), I have closely followed the district’s finances and education outcomes. As PTA president of Redwood Heights Elementary (RHS), I welcomed new families, particularly those transferring in. For some, this was their third year in OUSD’s enrollment lottery. When asked what they would’ve done if they were waitlisted again at all their chosen schools, they didn’t know. But they were certain they would not return to their assigned school.

Most stayed through the pandemic and fifth grade promotion. I found that for middle school, practically every child in my children’s grades chose either a private, a charter, or one of the three “good” district Hills schools. Only two RHS friends joined my eldest at Bret Harte; my youngest went alone.

Today, my children are thriving there. They have an excellent principal, inspiring teachers, and a burgeoning afterschool sports program and clubs. 1,100 kids roamed these halls 20 years ago; less than 500 do so today.

I can’t blame families for choosing other options. Even including those “good” OUSD schools, 69% of middle schoolers are below grade level in reading  (83% below for Black students and 81% for Latino) while 78% are below in math (92% for Black students and 86% for Latino).

But many school board candidates ignore these results and what parents really care about: quality schools for our children. It’s time to stop with strawman arguments and focus on our kids.

So when a candidate said in The Washington Post that failing schools with declining enrollment “was done by the district’s approach to charters,” I investigated, as I encourage all parents to do.  I learned the OUSD School Board has not approved a charter school in over six years. During that time, the board voted to close 11 charters and denied petitions for five new charters. OUSD had 37,122 students in the 2015-16 school year and 33,208 in 2022-23, a loss of more than 4,000 students during a time when the district was closing charter schools.

Today, OUSD has 85 schools for its students, or 391 students per school.  San Lorenzo has 656 students per school, and Hayward has 633. Public schools in California are funded on a per-pupil basis so it is unsurprising that the average teacher salary in those districts is proportionately higher. Three independent bodies – California FCMAT, a year-long Alameda County Grand Jury, and the OUSD State Trustee ran exhaustive investigations and came to the same central conclusion: OUSD has too many schools. To say otherwise gets into “climate change denial” territory.

The truth is that Oakland Hills families have always exercised school choice. Carl Munck Elementary sits between the wealthy neighborhoods of Crestmont and Ridgemont, yet just 7% of those residents attend Carl Munck, while 78% attend other better-performing Hills schools. In contrast, 76% of K-5 students living in Redwood Heights attend RHS, and 88% of kids in Montclair attend Montclair Elementary. As for Parker K-8, the school at the heart of the Washington Post article, 80% of students in their attendance zone chose to attend other schools. In fall 2019, before the pandemic and talks of closing, just 5.7% listed Parker as their top choice.

Caregivers must do our homework and be honest about whether it is acceptable for our children to be forced into schools where 80% of students are not reading at grade level. OUSD must, as District 7 Director Clifford Thomas, implored, “redirect the money that’s being used to keep the lights on at underperforming and underperforming and under-enrolled schools to welcoming schools that can better support student needs.”

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