Austin district moves to conduct assessment of school equity

The Austin school board is taking steps to conduct a self-assessment on school equity in response to a threat by the Texas Civil Rights Project to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the district.

Prior to conducting the assessment, the board will get ideas from a committee that is already examining how many of the district’s contracts are awarded to minority- or women-owned businesses. Then, the equity study will be conducted by a separate committee to be formed by the board in March.

The Texas Civil Right Project’s push for an assessment is an attempt to quantify a persistent issue in the Austin school district. Data has shown many schools on the city’s east side are under capacity, have high numbers of inexperienced teachers and educate mostly low-income, Hispanic and black students. Those schools have been the focus of a series of reforms over the years, with varying degrees of success. On the other hand, some of the district’s other schools and programs are highly competitive, full of experienced teachers and educate larger percentages of affluent students.

“Equal opportunity has to be guaranteed to all our children in our society,” Trustee Ted Gordon said during a 1.5 hour robust — and sometimes heated — discussion as the school board addressed equity and equality on Monday night. “Education is supposed to be the great leveler of this society … I don’t think the school district can do everything to resolve this issue, but I think we owe it to our kids to try to figure out what’s going on within our district, where the inequities lie, and see if we can address them.”

Abby Frank, a Texas Civil Rights Project attorney, said the group is pleased by the steps the district is taking.

“It’s a good step forward for the district,” she said. “This is only the beginning and we hope to be involved in the process and ensure there is community input.”

Trustee Robert Schneider questioned what exactly the assessment will measure and said he wants to make sure the committee is not monopolized by any one perspective.

The Texas Civil Rights Project in January publicly complained that the district had not addressed a disparity between the resources and opportunities given to affluent students and their low-income peers on the city’s east side. The group has said there are clear discrepancies in the district’s distribution of education resources, including access to donations and private resources from outside groups and access to high-quality and signature programs.

Schneider and Gordon clashed Monday over the diversity at the district’s nationally ranked high school: the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. Though district data shows that less than 12 percent of LASA students are low-income, less than 2 percent are black and 21.4 percent are Hispanic — in a district where 60 percent of students are Hispanic or low-income, and 8 percent are black — Schneider called LASA the most diverse high school in the district.

Schneider also said he didn’t think students took issue with the fact that LASA students, the majority of whom are white, are taught on the second floor of the campus; while those at LBJ High, where most students are low-income and black or Hispanic, are taught on the bottom floor.

Gordon disagreed with both points.

“I really do question when the percentage of African Americans, just to take my own interest and identity, is as low as it is, regardless of whatever your definition of diversity it is, to say that it is a diverse setting and that it’s OK the way it is, I was going to say is insulting, but I won’t go that far,” Gordon said. “It’s incomprehensible. There’s a problem.”

Schneider said if there was some sort of bias at LASA, including which students are admitted into the school a competitive process based on the student’s performance on a test, teacher recommendations and an essay he “would be among the first” to speak up.

“LASA is an open application. Anyone can apply,” Schneider said. “They don’t keep track of race or ethnicity or anything else for the applications. And in fact they have gone through numerous and repeated steps to make sure students aren’t identifiable to make sure that issues like you’re bringing up are not part of the process. So if you have a system where anyone and everyone can apply, I’m failing to see any deliberate and intentional effort to keep anyone out, regardless of their ethnicity or social economic status or anything else …

“I fail to see how the argument of there’s bias based on ethnicity is valid in any way at that school,” Schneider said.

Gordon, who is also chairman of the University of Texas African and African Diaspora Studies Department, said the fact that proportionally small numbers of minority students attend a school such as LASA shows that the system is somehow working to exclude them. He said the campus represents “colorblind racism,” which he said looks “racial inequity in the eye and claims it doesn’t exist.”

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