The Austin Chronicle

Austin ISD: The Resegregationists

By Richard Whittaker, January 29, 2013, 1:29pm, Newsdesk

Opponents of the plan to turn Pearce and Garcia Middle Schools into single sex academies should have know the fix was in. Last night the Austin ISD Board of Trustees voted 5-3 to institute gender division across much of East Austin, starting in the 2014-15 school year. Now the concern is, what are they planning for IDEA Allan tonight?

Last December, both seemed settled issues. The new board voted to cancel the IDEA Public Schools contract, and seemed set against the Pearce/Garcia plan. Last night, an incomplete board (Trustee Robert Schneider was absent) voted to unify the two middle schools into one attendance zone, and convert one into a boys school and one into a girls school. The vote was somewhat surprising: This was trustee Cheryl Bradley's pet project, and it was obvious President Vince Torres was on her side after he revived the seemingly-dead project in January. Lori Moya and Amber Elenz seemed a lock too, but it was the surprising addition of Tamala Barksdale – often seen as a progressive and moderating voice on the board – that tipped her plan into the majority. New trustees Ann Teich, Gina Hinojosa and Jayme Mathias all voted no.

Education Austin president Ken Zarifis congratulated Bradley on getting her pet project through, but that was where the applause stopped. He said, "I agree with her that something different has to happen. I just don't think this is the right fit."

The logistics still have to be settled, such as bathroom conversions. Then there's transport: If, as is widely proposed, Garcia becomes the girls' school, female middle schoolers on the west side of the Pearce attendance zone likely to face a daily trip to Colony Park and back. And what about the unknown number of parents who don't want to send their kids to a single-sex campus? How will surrounding campuses absorb the exodus, when schools like Webb have their own issues?

According to Zarifis, there are also major concerns about community buy-in. The district's own polling shows less than 50% support for the project, with even fewer parents prepared to send their kids to a single sex school. Zarifis said, "When you have a 50-50 split on a massive change like this, and a lot of people have not been in the loop on this, I think you're going to have an enormous push-back."

On top of that, the board voted 6-2 (Barksdale and Hinojosa were the nay votes) to find a home for a separate boys academy, analogous to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. That's an interesting step at many levels, not least that the board has increasingly accepted that, after years of protestation, Ann Richards is a magnet school. Secondly, a big part of the argument was about equity, and that without a boys' Ann Richards, the district could be violating Title IX, and could face a lawsuit. Unfortunately, the board ignored the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union is already suing districts over single sex schools in Maine and West Virgina, and has filed complaints against programs in Alabama and Idaho with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Tonight, the board seems set on re-opening another healed wound. A public hearing at 6.30pm at Reagan High (7104 Berkman Drive) on the planned May bond has been revised to include discussion of the IDEA deal. Even though former trustee Annette LoVoi made them write a "no harm, no foul" cancellation clause into the IDEA Allan contract – a clause the board used in December, there is an idea being mooted of giving IDEA another year at Allan. The big question is, why would the board do that?

The behind-the-scenes muttering is that Superintendent Meria Carstarphen is pushing the one year extension, even though the voters and the board sent a clear message that they want IDEA out. The question is, where does Education Commission Michael Williams stand in this? The Texas Education Agency has long been pushing for reforms in the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team, including bringing in outside help, but there is no indication they are wedded to IDEA. However, the district seems to be dragging its feet on finding alternatives. So will tonight mean a reversal of course?

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