Austin at Large: Equity Is Everybody’s Business
We the people of Austin own the future of our schools
As you read this, it's past Christmas, and as you all enjoy your new sweaters and consoles and exercise bikes and whatnot, let me start an argument around the holiday table. Boy oh boy, we really made a hash of this Austin Independent School District School Changes deal, didn't we? Nowhere to go but up in 2020!
Yes, I said "we." Not "they." We, the people of Austin, need to take ownership of the future of our entire unicorn of a diverse, mixed-income, urban school district, and not keep letting AISD flail as it's asked to transcend the existential challenges of our city under the worst possible conditions. This baby belongs to the whole village.
This is the inescapable context in which AISD Equity Officer Dr. Stephanie Hawley has shouldered her burden; the district, as currently built and operated, perpetuates historic inequity, supremacy, and segregation because Austin does too. That's not to set aside accountability for AISD leadership, who definitely have an assignment to guide their organization through some culture change, and get the district's house in order before it asks the community to adapt to the School Changes it desires.
Remember, we went through a lot of very similar angst back in 2011-12, the last time AISD tried to close schools, with a different superintendent and largely different board of trustees. School Changes was supposed to be different, and it ended up in the same place. This points to, at the very least, the need for a lot of internal learning and reflection and rethinking at the district.
Which is very much what Hawley has proposed. Her dramatic calling out of the failings of her own managers in November, preceding the controversial vote to close four elementary campuses, has led not to her being fired, but – at least as she sees it – an opportunity for the district to do the hard, hard work upon itself that's needed to make sure success is made possible for all students, wherever they live and whatever they look like.
It remains to be seen how firmly AISD will grasp that bull by the horns. But what about us? What are we willing to do to allow the district to finally, fully, and fairly adapt and evolve to the Austin we actually live in now? I think a good place to start would be to not weaponize Hawley's work to fling at perceived threats to the cozy consensus of affluent Central Austinites and their beloved legacy schools and those who champion them politically. And that's all I'll say about that.
Let us be honest with ourselves. On balance, AISD has done an OK – not great, but serviceable – job of responding to Austin's growth in raw-number terms. Its current trend of enrollment decline is more a consequence of the cost of Austin housing than of the quality of Austin schools, and the surrounding districts are themselves becoming diverse and mixed-income.
What AISD has done less well – what one may argue it has not been allowed to do at all – is respond to Austin's change. We all know that the legacy AISD campuses serve fewer students than when they were built, but they also serve very different students, as Austin has become demographically distended and polarized.
Some of those schools became boutique; others became reservoirs of concentrated needs and disadvantages. If redrawing school attendance zone boundaries had, over the decades, been a routine AISD administrative function rather than a cause for politically fraught community convulsions, this would be less true. Now, it may be too late to use that tool to bridge the increasing cultural and economic distance between campuses.
The political appeal of neighborhood schools persists even though the neighborhoods they serve have been fundamentally and structurally transformed, and preserving their campuses in amber, or wrapping them with barbed wire, doesn't reverse that process of change. And no, an explosion of new housing under a new Land Development Code, even if it were to bring new children closer to these schools, would not restore the status quo ante; it would, rather, hasten these changes.
The district has halfheartedly tried to remake its legacy schools, or ask them to remake themselves, around programmatic distinctions without really committing to a policy framework that elevates, rather than tolerates, intra-district choice; transfers remain rationed and hoarded like golden tickets. It has also greatly confused the issue by linking school closures to the conditions of the campuses themselves, and their associated operating costs; it's an attractive path to take, turning messy community conversations into math problems to be solved, but it's been a dead end for the district on multiple occasions.
The new year brings a new opportunity for we, the people of Austin, to do our own hard, hard work upon ourselves – to continue to remake the sociopolitical status quo of the whole city into something more equitable and supportive for all the children and families that AISD serves. It's an opportunity Austin can easily fumble, should the debris left by the School Changes crash landing be further sharpened and used to hurt one another.