Naked City

Off the Desk

Austin Interfaith came into the legislative session in January with a plan to increase funding for the Alliance School program. Midway through the session they're fighting to keep the program alive, because a private, for-profit education company is after the same Investment Capital Fund (ICF) that provides grants for the state's 129 Alliance Schools. There are 16 Alliance Schools in Austin, which receive modest grants ($50,000 a year) from the fund to organize parent groups, train teachers, conduct community outreach, and establish afterschool programs. The seven-year-old program gets rave reviews from parents and teachers, and its supporters in the Lege praise it for leveraging small investments in public schools into large returns. (Unlike the charter school program, which invests tax dollars in private schools, alliance school funding goes only to public schools.)

Austin Interfaith is one of a dozen congregation-based public interest groups organized by the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas. Interfaith's co-chair, Regina Rogoff, said she started this session trying to convince legislators to increase the ICF from $14 million to $20 million for the biennium. Then she learned that a bill filed by Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Harlingen Rep. Jim Solis would open the fund to HOSTS, a Dallas-based, for-profit mentoring company that contracts with schools to provide curriculum and coordinate volunteer mentors for at-risk students. Rogoff argued that while HOSTS does great work in the public schools, the ICF was established for nonprofits such as Alliance Schools and several other nonprofit programs that qualify for funding. (Austin Interfaith is a nonprofit advocacy group but it gets no public funding.) HOSTS is a profitable venture, and this session booked the services of Eddie Cavazos as its lobbyist. Cavazos, a former state rep from Corpus Christi, is one of the most engaging members of the lobby, and it was he who sold the bill to Barrientos and Solis. At Senate Finance, Cavazos also got HOSTS into the revenue stream, initially including the company in the list of programs funded by the ICF, in a measure carried by Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville.

Austin Interfaith and its sister organizations began working both houses, handing out Texas Education Agency reports that demonstrate the success of the Alliance School program. For example, students on campuses where the alliance program was in place for two years have improved their TAAS pass rates in math, reading, and writing at a rate more than double the improvement of students at non-alliance schools. Compared to non-alliance schools, TEA reports on the state's 59 "veteran alliance schools" (three years in the program) showed even better TAAS results -- and a far higher pass rate among economically disadvantaged students. (TAAS is the standardized test required by state law.) Austin Interfaith also provided legislators lists of federal and state funding sources HOSTS can -- or already does -- use to pay for its program.

Legislators responded in a way recognizable to anyone who watched last week's UT-Temple NCAA game -- folding shortly before the end of the first half. Even Barrientos and Solis were backing away from their bills, saying that they were unaware of the unintended consequences. Barrientos told the Chronicle, "The bill is dead -- I killed it. I didn't recognize that it would take its funding from the same source as Alliance Schools." Meanwhile, Lucio's amendment was defeated in committee by Sen. Carlos Truan.

The private sector run on the state's nonprofit education bank appears to be dead -- at least for this session.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Interfaith, alliance schools, Regina Rogoff, Gonzalo Barrientos, Jim Solis, Eddie Cavazos, HOSTS, Capital Investment Fund, Eddie Lucio, Texas Education Agency

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