Editorial: After ‘poverty pimps’ flap, Austin ISD must focus on kids

We by no means excuse the words former Austin Independent School Board President Kendall Pace used in a private text to a fellow board member. Her language was uncouth and unprofessional. The fallout cost Pace her position on the board as those she offended along with political foes turned up the heat.

Pace’s judgment in making derogatory comments even confidentially threw into question her ability to continue leading the board, despite a huge accomplishment achieved under her tenure: The passage of a $1.1 billion bond package last year – the single largest in the district’s history — to build and upgrade Austin ISD schools and technology.

In the text, obtained by the American-Statesman through an open records request, Pace said the district only would be considered for the Texas Education Agency’s Transformation Zone Program if target schools – struggling campuses in Northeast Austin – were set up like charters, “i.e. one with balls to ignore the special interest groups and crazy ignorant community activists and poverty pimps.”

RELATED: Austin school board President Kendall Pace resigns amid texting flap.

Pace later apologized for “the crudeness of the discourse,” explaining that it was a “rant born out of frustration over the lack of urgency by many adults to address the inequities in student outcomes.”

Her apology and resignation this week bring that controversial chapter to an end. The board now should concentrate on the most urgent issue facing the district: the lagging academic performance of the district’s African-American, Latino and low-income students. That is the challenge — crisis really — Pace focused on during much of her tenure.

As the district moves on with a new board president, Geronimo Rodriguez, that issue should be priority No. 1.

Too much time already has been lost and the clock is ticking on the futures of thousands of kids in Austin ISD, as Pace pointed out in her swan song this week:

• Just 55 percent of students attending Title I elementary schools — campuses with high concentrations of low-income kids — are reading on grade level by the end of second grade.

• On the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP), in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math in 2017, African-American students had an average 51.2 percentage point gap in performance from white students; Hispanic students had a 44.5 percentage point gap from white students.

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• Only 26 percent of African-American students in Austin ISD met or exceeded the proficient standard on the math NAEP for fourth-graders, compared with 73 percent for white fourth-graders; In eighth-grade math, NAEP results showed 11 percent of African-Americans meeting or doing better than the proficient standard, compared with 70 percent for white students. The gaps were likewise huge in NAEP results for fourth-grade reading, with 17 percent of black students meeting the proficient or higher standard, compared with 67 percent of white students.

• As in 2005, there remains a gap in 2017 for economically disadvantaged versus non-economically disadvantaged students, special education students versus non-special-education students, and students who speak limited or no English compared with kids who are proficient or fluent in English.

We confirmed those results with the district, though district officials offered an entirely different picture regarding NAEP.

Last month, there was all-around praise from Superintendent Paul Cruz for the district’s overall performance on the 2017 NAEP. He touted Austin’s: first-place ranking in the percentage of students at or above proficiency levels in eighth-grade reading; fourth place in fourth-grade math; and second place in eighth-grade math. He noted that in fourth-grade reading, “students ranked eight among 27 districts participating in a Trial Urban District Assessment.”

Certainly, that is a pretty portrait, but only if one doesn’t look too closely. Pace and Trustee Ted Gordon have taken a magnifier to NAEP results — which are unattractive, if not ugly — when disaggregated by race, ethnicity and income.

Another recent report highlights that point.

As the American-Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported, just 10 percent of black and Latino students in Austin are attending the school district’s highest-rated schools, compared with one-third of white students and 50 percent of Asian students, according to a study by Houston-based Children at Risk, which annually ranks Texas schools.

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As troubling, there were only a handful of Austin schools with mostly low-income student populations that earned an A or B grade from the group.

Taken together, the NAEP and Children at Risk study validate concerns Pace, Gordon and former Trustee Paul Saldaña often raised: The Austin district continues to be a tale of two cities, one with high-performing campuses that serve middle- and upper-class families in largely white neighborhoods, and another with underperforming schools that serve lower-income families who mostly are Latino or African-American.

There is an urgency to this issue: Those gaps and inequities play out in real time in the form of dropout rates, college readiness and the region’s workforce and economy.

The Austin-area has become a hub for high-tech companies, which need skilled workers with two- or four-year college degrees or other type of certification requiring education beyond high school. That certainly is true of Amazon in its search for the city in which to build its “HQ2” headquarters that needs skilled workers to fill 50,000 jobs over time.

Students who are being left behind today are likely to lag tomorrow in job opportunities, pay, creative pursuits and quality of life.

If this is the best the district can do, then more resignations should follow.

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