The Oakland Unified School District's executive director of enrollment, Charles Wilson, is backing a provocative new proposal that could begin to change the racial and economic makeup of Oakland's public schools.
Currently, most of the district's top-ranked public schools are located in neighborhoods largely populated by affluent and white families, a segregation tied to historic housing patterns that reflect race and class divisions.
Trying to get on solid financial footing, Oakland Unified has committed to closing several schools to save money. Most of the schools on the closure list are located in Oakland's flatlands, where a greater number of black and Latino kids live. Figuring out where those students should go next is Wilson's job — and he wants to give those families a ticket to a better school, even if it means taking a spot from a neighborhood family.
How big of a change is the "opportunity ticket" program?
This is actually a bold action that is going to make a dent, even if it's a small dent. I think it is going to make it clear that getting kids from different parts of the city into the same schools is not frightening. I think that we are going to be doing this in a very reasoned manner.
How do students currently get priority to attend the district's best schools?
The number one priority has always gone to siblings of current students; we want to keep families together. The second priority has gone to families who live within the neighborhood zones. And so if you don't live in a neighborhood and you don't have a sibling that goes to that school, you don't really have that great of a chance of getting into our high-demand, high-performing schools because most of the seats have been taken up by siblings and neighbors.
The district plans to close a number of schools in neighborhoods with a higher population of black and Latino kids. How is the opportunity ticket going to help these families?
We're saying for impacted families, where there is not going to be a school in their zone any longer, those families now get a priority above the neighborhood families at the schools of their choice. Under the opportunity ticket, they would have priority above neighbors for up to 51 percent of the available seats.
Fifty-one percent — tell me more about that.
Let's say we have 100 kindergarten seats. We have 40 siblings who want to go in; all of the siblings would get in first. [Of the remaining seats] up to 51 percent, or 31 seats, would go to opportunity ticket holders — if there are that many who want that school. And then the remaining 29 seats would go to neighbors. If there were anything left, that would go to a general lottery.
So it's taking families most impacted by school closures and placing them in a very high-priority space.
Do you feel like you're part of something here that could actually make a dent in the inequity of schools in the Oakland school district?
Yes. That is exactly what I'm thinking we are going to be doing: giving Oakland a chance to see some clear test cases of how socioeconomic and racial integration of schools is possible. I mean we support the concept, but then the reality becomes very, very difficult. I think it's a great chance for Oakland to shine and show its true colors. We have been a city that's been a leader in social justice, and this is the next front of a larger social justice movement.
Will it still be up to parents to transport their kids to their new schools? A better school might not be close, so I still see transportation as being an issue, don't you?
Oh, absolutely. This is not meant to solve all the problems of structural racism and structural poverty. That's a very real issue. I mean families that don't have transportation of their own and can't afford good transit, plus just the concept of putting little children on public transit. ... You know, how will the parents go to work if they're having to chaperone their children on buses? So it is a significant flaw in all of this.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
This post has been updated.