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The Persistent Challenge of Open Enrollment (Part 2 in Marking the Anniversary of Brown)

San Francisco Examiner, May 4, 1990. Courtesy of

Last time, we discussed the role that OUSD neighborhood attendance boundaries play in reinforcing racial and class-based school segregation in Oakland. Today, we look at open enrollment’s (OE) contribution.

Put simply, OE is a policy that allows families to apply to schools outside their neighborhood (where they are traditionally given preference). The history of the policy in Oakland dates back to the 1960’s when it existed in limited form as a means for families, mostly Black, to opt-out of overcrowded schools. “Freedom-of-choice” plans had increased in popularity nationally at this time - particularly in the South - as a way for school districts to delay or avoid desegregation entirely.

The policy gradually expanded in Oakland and, by 1990, one-fifth of students enrolled in schools outside their neighborhood. Today, that number has tripled to over 65%, broken down by region and race below (all data used in this post is based on three-year averages from 2017-2020 that was requested directly from OUSD).

Regional and racial breakdowns of students in OUSD attending schools (district or charter) outside their attendance area (2017-2020)

The choice to leave your neighborhood can be a deserved option for families, especially for low-income students of color whose neighborhood schools are too often under-resourced. However, OE has a specific hand in this misallocation of resources: the system both reinforces neighborhood segregation, and exacerbates the imbalance in available neighborhood seats in each attendance area.

When students stay or when they go

Regardless of whether students stay in or leave their neighborhood, they are most likely making a racially segregative move. For the district as a whole, no one race is in the majority. For those students that stay in their neighborhood, however, the average school make-up is often one predominantly of their own race.

As shown above, Whites and Latinos are arguably the most racially segregated when they stay in neighborhood schools. Both racial groups interact with far more students of their own compared to district averages (+23% for Whites; +17% for Latinos), and far fewer of the other race (-27% Latino interaction for Whites; -7% White interaction for Latinos). Black and Asian students, while both also overrepresented in their neighborhood schools, attend schools closer to district averages of other racial groups.

In theory, OE could help disrupt the patterns of neighborhood racial segregation by enabling families to attend schools elsewhere. Similar patterns arise, however, when students leave their neighborhood.

The average school for Black or Latinos students who opt out of their neighborhood is still about 78% Black or Latino, about 9% above the district average. For White students leaving, they attend schools that are less White than their neighborhood's, but still unrepresentative of district averages. Whether because of travel restrictions or the tendency for racial composition to inform school choice decisions, student transfer doesn't improve racial integration in most cases.

The real issue behind enrollment instability

OE adds to OUSD's precarious attendance boundary setup that we discussed previously: some neighborhoods (mostly those with students of color) have a vast oversupply of students compared to school capacity, while others (mostly White) a shortage. In a functioning system, OUSD would have guardrails in place to properly correct this imbalance .

Instead, Oakland neighborhoods with the highest exodus of students are also the ones with the least inflow.

The percentage in each OUSD region of (1) students staying in their neighborhood school, (2) students leaving their neighborhood via OE and being replaced by entering students, (3) an enrollment gap that results if more students leave than enter the neighborhood, or (4) an enrollment surplus if more students enter than leave (as a whole, only Northwest neighborhoods experiences this). Averaged between 2017-2020.

As shown above, district-run schools in East Oakland traditionally have about 70% of eligible families opting for a non-neighborhood school. But only about 20% of that 70% is replaced, leaving a 50% gap in potential enrollment. A similar pattern exists in West Oakland.

Northwest Oakland, on the other hand, historically replaces all of its departing students and brings in additional students equal to over 80% of students who stayed in the neighborhood to begin with. The Central and Northeast regions largely replace most of their students that leave the neighborhood.

This imbalance creates serious enrollment challenges for OUSD flatland schools. Some may attribute this enrollment gap to a lack of good quality options in West and East Oakland. Quality in so many instances is subjective, however, and too often tied to metrics that are heavily correlated with race and class.

At the very least, the district should consider specific policies that encourage families to both challenge the definition of “good schools” and consider their neighborhood option (granted, attendance boundaries need to represent a more diverse and properly sized demographic first). OUSD's Citywide Plan calls for “high quality schools in every neighborhood”. I question whether this is possible until we give every neighborhood an equal chance of enrolling enough of its residents.

Charter schools' dependence on open enrollment

Charter schools are an oft-discussed piece of the enrollment puzzle when it comes to uneven enrollment patterns. On the one hand, the district's OE problem is unrelated to charters; the majority (around 56%) of families who leave their neighborhood go to district-run schools.

On the other hand, charter schools largely rely on families leaving their OUSD-defined neighborhood. Since the families that do this the most are from the oversupplied ones (where charters are also disproportionately located), the result is bound to perpetuate both the district's enrollment imbalance and racial segregation. Families should never be faulted for choosing a charter over a district-run school, but we do need to recognize charters’ role in the system as a whole.

The connection between open enrollment and choice is flawed

OE is a tough topic to debate. The system largely replicates neighborhood segregation but, by some measures, doesn't necessarily make it worse. Across all schools, the exposure between Black or Latino and White students is roughly the same compared to that within attendance boundaries (we'll look at this more next time).

Just as importantly, who am I to say that families should be more limited in their school choices? This ignores the real challenges that some neighborhood schools face. Nevertheless, in a system driven by choice, we need to properly examine what these choices actually are and who is making them.

In Oakland, the choices families make are often racially identifiable schools. Other factors undoubtedly play a role but, at the end of the day, families are choosing within a segregated system. Without any policies in place to counter this, OUSD enables self-segregation, continuing to drive inequitable resource allocation which starts with uneven enrollment patterns.

The people most often burdened to make choices are non-White families. White neighborhoods largely require students to come from elsewhere to reach school capacity. Yet many families might not have the resources to travel outside their neighborhood or dedicate time to a thorough search process. On top of the fact that high-demand schools in Oakland have limited out-of-neighborhood seats, the ability to choose is a false reality for many.

Lastly, Oakland, just like most cities across the country, is working to undo a historically racist system that is centuries in the making. Individual choices are unlikely to correct a system-wide problem. To quote Heather McGhee's new book, “public policy created [racial segregation], and public policy should solve it”.

OUSD must elevate the value of diverse schools on student’s academic achievement and socioemotional growth, and then work toward a system where every student’s right to attend one of these schools is realized.

[For an in-depth discussion of how open enrollment systems furthers segregation, I'd recommend Paul Gewirtz's paper on the issue]

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