Out of District Kids Deserve Full Access to Same Opportunities

Written by Johanna Staples-Ager

Chances are you know at least one BHS student who does not live in Berkeley. Many of these people are inter-district transfers whose enrollment has been approved by the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), primarily children of BUSD employees or those subject to extenuating circumstances (e.g., their safety). However, some number of them are unverified non-residents, who attend Berkeley schools without BUSD’s knowledge of their non-Berkeley residence. In recent years, such students and their families have alternately come under fire for enrollment fraud or have been seen as symptoms of a larger issue of inequality, gentrification, and displacement. But the question is not so much about these individual people’s intentions, or the BUSD’s appearance of jealously guarding high-quality education, but the forces at work behind public school funding, taxes, and district enforcement.

This school year, as part of the latest board policy, students heading into middle and high school had to re-enroll in the BUSD with proof of residence, such as utility bills. In addition to these precautions, district officers also visited the homes of 503 families for address verification. These checks caused 89 students to be denied enrollment. This new policy is part of a larger movement towards stronger enrollment enforcement — unverified non-resident families do not pay the parcel taxes and bond measures that go towards Berkeley public school funding. However, more students, no matter their residence, also mean more state funding for the school district. According to a study by UC Berkeley graduate Rinat Fried, unverified non-resident students actually provide a net funding benefit to BUSD. Moreover, students below the poverty line qualify for additional federal funding. This means the school district has the ability to essentially make money off unverified students, specifically disadvantaged ones.

Such algebra might raise thorny questions about the motivation behind enrollment enforcement, but the fact is there is simply not enough room for every family that desires a Berkeley education for their children. BUSD enrollment is at a recent high of 9,581 students and counting, causing many classrooms to be moved into portables and former elective and multi-purpose rooms. Such crowding yields even more vitriolic resentment of unverified out-of-district families. With BUSD admission so coveted and competitive, the question arises: why is a Berkeley education considered so valuable?

Berkeley, unlike its surrounding cities, has additional property taxes that are funneled directly towards public education. Berkeley residents voted for this parcel tax after Prop 13, a measure that controls taxes for California property owners, was passed, essentially gutting public school funding. This parcel tax directly contributes to high-quality education, leading to competition for district residence. This in turn yields a skyrocketing housing market and fierce competition for BUSD admission.

Given the rampant educational inequality in the Bay Area, especially between Berkeley and its surrounding cities, the issue becomes not one of BUSD keeping underprivileged students from attending, but these students not having access to the same standard of education in their own districts. This raises an even thornier, more deep-rooted question: is the BUSD obligated to help these children? Giving quality education to each and every child, no matter where they live, is most certainly a central tenet of public education, but in this case, it is most effective to strike at what caused this inequality in the first place — California’s Prop 13. Unverified non-resident students are a symptom of a much larger disease, and Berkeley’s plight is only so striking in that it is different from everything around it — Prop 13 dramatically reduced public school funding everywhere, creating a mad scramble for Berkeley’s parcel-taxed education and thus its housing, beginning a self-perpetuating cycle of gentrification. The fault line is much longer than previously thought, but we as Berkeley students — resident or not — must work together to make high-quality public education available for everyone, not just those who can afford to live in the Berkeley bubble.