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Report Highlights Inequities in AISD Funding

Title I cash and private fundraising don't align in most local schools

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 21, 2012

Report Highlights Inequities in AISD Funding
Photo by Jana Birchum

A year ago, Texas Civil Rights Project director Jim Harrington was listening to his daughter, an Austin Independent School District teacher, talking to another teacher about how there seemed to be rich campuses and poor campuses. Harrington said, "I always wondered why the schools were so unequal." Now the TCRP has released a report showing a stark funding gap between high achieving and struggling schools, which Harrington said shows "a real lack of commitment" in the district to helping poor and underachieving kids.

The report, titled "Austin Independent School District: Inequitable Funding and Vestiges of Segregation," argues there is an underlying myth warping how cash is raised and allocated across the district. Parents in high-achieving schools claim they are the victim of underfunding, that low-achieving schools get a boost from federal Title I funds. They feel they need extra money to catch up, and so campuses raise extra private cash through special events, donations, and vending machine revenue. But TCRP says they're missing the point, and with those extra private funds, the high-equity schools end up even further ahead of their struggling peers. The authors wrote, "This broken system has partially emerged from an 'us' versus 'them' mindset and a lost sense of community."

It's a simple distinction: Title I cash pays for specific programs designed to help struggling kids; it's supposed to get struggling schools to the bare minimum. The private cash raised by campuses tends to go toward day trips, libraries, athletics, and booster programs for high achievers, further enriching the education of kids who are already doing well. However, Harrington said he hears the narrative repeated across the district, by parents and principals: that Title I schools have an unfair cash advantage. He said, "It fits into what people want to do, and gives them a moral justification for what's happening."

Overall, the report puts the blame solidly on AISD's administration for turning a blind eye to this disparity, and accused it of "complicity in this inequitable state of affairs." While Harrington was surprised by how big the differences between campuses are, he was equally surprised by the poor state of AISD's financial record keeping. He said: "They don't even understand what they have. Their records are awful, and there's no uniform accounting system."

So far, AISD has not responded directly to the content of the report. In a statement, chief financial officer Nicole Conley-Abram said that "regretfully, TCRP did not provide AISD with an opportunity to review the report before its distribution to the media and public today." Conley-Abram claimed that "we have been working with [TCRP] for the past year," but Harrington was astounded by the chutzpah of that statement. He said, "We've been fighting tooth and nail to get the information from them, to which we are entitled by law."

The report also argues that the inequity isn't just about private revenue vs. Title I funds, but is present in the way the district sends cash to the campuses. Take two elementary campuses, Clayton and Wool­dridge. They each house about 870 students, but Clayton, where only 2.9% of students are economically disadvantaged, gets roughly $600 per student per year more than Wooldridge, where 97.8% of kids come from low-income households. As the report states, "Rather than distribute the money based on the number of high-needs students at each school, the District uses staffing formulas that allocate positions, rather than dollars, to schools." And even when high-achieving schools accept economically disadvantaged transfer students, their costs don't go up. Generally, those transfer students are already committed to their education, and carry fewer additional costs. However, the new campus still gets the Title I boost for that kid.

The TCRP proposes a 10-point plan to address this imbalance, partly by taking a broader approach to private fundraising. At the core would be a new districtwide foundation and endowment: Any school raising more than $10,000 in private funds would send a portion of the excess into that central pot, which would then be distributed to provide extra services at high-needs schools. The model has been tried in Portland, Ore., where the All Hands Raised foundation raised $3 million in 2011 alone. The report also recommends that both UT and the business community – rather than just the pro-accountability, developer-friendly Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce – become more constructively engaged in the district. "There is no shortage of dedicated volunteers at UT," the authors wrote. "Why AISD doesn't systematically tap into and organize this dynamic resource at all levels is unfathomable, and probably even inexcusable."

Harrington suggests that the administration doesn't want to rock the boat with middle-class parents, and that it's fearful those parents will send their kids to charter schools. However, he argues that they must tackle this problem for the long-term good of the district, and TCRP has not ruled out using the courts to force them to do so. However, he said he would rather the administration made the changes voluntarily. He said: "It's really incumbent on the school district to begin that educational leadership process, to get people to think about this, to give them the right reasons to make a transition, to try to remedy the problem. That's what leadership is, and we don't have that."


TCRP Report Recommendations

Remedies to redress disparities and create private resource equity

1) Creating a district-wide foundation and an endowment to fund programs for low-equity schools

2) Creating the position of development director in each low-equity school

3) Partnering schools for better resource sharing

4) Better distribution of activity funds and monies obtained from district property use

5) Community organizers for low-equity schools

6) Enlisting UT to assist low-equity schools: teacher training and research, mentoring and tutoring, expanded volunteer programs (extracurricular activities and sports)

7) Curriculum-based technology task force for low-equity schools

8) Commitment by Austin businesses and local foundations to prioritize low-equity schools

9) Capping central administrative costs and salaries

10) Better public/private resource equity utilization

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