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Letter To The People About Austin Independent School District

 I have a continuing concern regarding the poor performance of AISD as it relates to Black students. An associated concern is how quickly many Anglo appointed Black leaders feel a need to actively participate in the on going destruction of Black students in their attempt to be accepted by the ones who appointed them. It is as if there are no limits to the hypocrisy. We have a problem and it did not just start. Yes many Blacks have been programmed to be "color blind". However Black people are the only people on the planet earth that buys into that crock! "Every other major district in the state does better and we need to change that. If we are going to be a strong city . . . we have to have a school district that has students that can compete in the work force." -Austin Mayor Gus Garcia
In recent years, the school district became the first district in Texas history criminally indicted (for reporting false data on dropout rates to the state accountability system). The district has been castigated by the Texas Comptroller for failing to implement needed financial reforms, and Austin Mayor Gus Garcia, a former school board president, has criticized the district's record of educating poor and minority students. A local grassroots organization, known as the Eastside Social Action Coalition, has asked for the right to secede for AISD altogether, in order to form a new district focusing on the needs of the predominantly minority children who live east of Interstate 35. Austin homeowners have felt an increasing squeeze of higher property tax bills while getting very little in return.

If you are curious about why AISD felt compelled to falsify state data regarding dropouts to the state, see Figure 1 below. Between the 1997-8 and the 2000-1 school years, 46.9% of the Austin Independent School District "Class of 2001" disappeared from district schools. State Senator Barrientos describes this phenomenon as "the evaporation rate" since the school district will not admit to the size of the dropout problem. While any number of factors could help explain why AISD lost 45% of their graduating class in the span of 4 years (students moving out of the district), they will be counteracted by other trends (students moving into the district). The evaporation rate for other grade levels, however, suggests that most of high-school "evaporation" is explained by students dropping out of school. The Intercultural Development Research Association calculated a similar attrition rate for the whole of Travis County for the 2001 school year at 46%, with a 54% attrition rate for African-American students, a 28% attrition rate for White students, and a 63% attrition rate for Hispanic students.

Many students who do earn their diplomas through AISD demonstrate an aspiration to attend college by taking college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Whether or not AISD has prepared them for college coursework is another question entirely, as many student graduate without the background to take college credit courses. The state of Texas has established a criterion score for college entrance examinations establishing a readiness for college level coursework. Students scoring below criterion must take the TASP exam for possible assignment to college non-credit remedial courses. As Figure 2 below demonstrates, AISD does an especially poor job at preparing Hispanic and African-American children for college.
Defenders of the poor performance of urban school districts often claim that these schools suffer from a lack of resources, but no one can make such a claim on behalf of AISD. AISD spending increased substantially in recent years. Since the 1993-4 school year, AISD expenditures per student have increased by 45%. The big picture for education in Austin: spending higher and higher amounts of taxpayer dollars while still failing to successfully educate a huge number of children. As the troubles of the districts have piled up, it has not escaped the notice of homebuyers moving to the Austin metropolitan area that the bargain offered by AISD involves paying high taxes for an inferior service. Not surprisingly, those with the means to do so have exercised choice by locating in the school districts around Austin. During the 1993-2002 period, the collection of districts under Education Service Center 13 (including Austin) saw student enrollment growth of 28%, the Round Rock Independent School District grew by 42% during this period. Austin's enrollment grew only by 6% as well informed homebuyers decided to avoid the district altogether. Many parents have used "checkbook school choice," much to the benefit of their children.
Unfortunately, despite decades of greatly increased spending, we have precious little to show for it in terms of academic performance. Austin parents have heard for decades that they need to be patient, to work within the system. The system has been making excuses for a lack of performance, especially with regard to the academic performance of economically disadvantaged and minority children.
National real spending per pupil increased from $ 3,500 to $7,000 per student between 1967 and 1994 while during the same period, average American SAT scores dropped 50 points. Tragically for American school children, the "crusade" of the public-school establishment to increase student learning has resembled the bumbling knights of Monty Python, and the grail is nowhere to be found. The recently completed Third International Math and Science Study found that the longer American children stay in school, the further they fall behind students in Asia and Europe. American high-school seniors ranked near the bottom (19th out of 21 countries studied), ahead of only Cyprus and South Africa, in these international ranking

Against this backdrop of repeated failure, the evaluations of school choice shine out like a beacon. Every major evaluation of school choice effectiveness making use of the Control Group design has found significant academic gains for students participating in choice. This includes test score evaluations in Milwaukee, Washington D.C., Dayton Ohio, and Charlotte conducted by scholars from Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Georgetown, and the University of Texas. Several programs could not make use of the Control Group design because they did not use a lottery to distribute vouchers, but evaluations using alternate methodologies have found gains in these programs as well.

Supporters of education choice claim that competition between schools will pressure schools to focus their resources on teaching, while opponents of choice worry that competition will drain money and resources from struggling public schools. Do we have any evidence? Fortunately, yes-both scholarly and anecdotal evidence reveals that competition does in fact improve public schools.
The Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio has been the location of the nation's largest privately financed school choice program- Edgewood Horizon, which essentially offered a private school option all of the Edgewood districts predominantly Hispanic and economically disadvantaged population. Edgewood officials claimed that the program would destroy the district's finances. The evidence, however, points to higher teacher pay in the district, smaller average class sizes, and improved academic performance. Alternatively, consider the public schools in Dearborn Michigan. In the early 1990s, Dearborn struggled with a variety of problems, and by the end of the decade, four charter schools operated in the district, with additional charters in the adjoining districts. Instead of entering into a downward spiral, former Dearborn Superintendent Jeremy Hughes established a Theme School Program allowing Dearborn schools convert into open-enrollment magnet programs. The idea was to give parents what they wanted for their children within the district so that they would not want to leave. Themes include everything from Engineering to Fine Arts to Character Education- and people cannot get enough of them. "The problem is that our schools are so overcrowded and there are so few openings at specific theme schools," Hughes told the Detroit News. Hughes openly admits that the district reformed in response to charter school competition: "We welcome competition. The reforms we've enacted would not have happened, at least not as fast, without competition," Dr. Hughes told the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Studies from scholars Harvard, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin have established that children using choice programs to leave public schools score higher on achievement tests, but what about the children choosing to remain in their public schools? Again, the evidence is quite positive. Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby has conducted a number of studies comparing the public school achievement scores of students in public schools facing competition from charter schools and vouchers to public schools in less competitive environments. Hoxby's results show that public schools face higher levels of competition demonstrate significantly higher test scores at lower average cost. Hoxby's research also demonstrates that public school teachers earn higher salaries in competitive educational environments, a welcome and predictable consequence of greater competition for the services of talented teachers.
Choice programs have demonstrated an ability to improve public education. State legislatures established five school voucher programs and six school choice tax credit programs since 1990, and over 600,000 children now attend charter schools. We badly need this level of momentum and more. After decades of funding increases to public schools, Secretary of Education Rod Paige recently announced national test results showing that 60% of low-income public school fourth graders fail to read at a basic level.

The evidence demonstrates that school choice delivers academic results by focusing our enormous but inefficiently used public school resources into the classroom. President Clinton once defined "insanity" as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time." Texans have the choice of continuing to send increasing amounts of money into chronically under-performing schools like many of those in AISD, or else striking a new and more promising course. If we choose the former, there can be no doubt that the primary victims will continue to be low-income children. The person best suited to choose the best sort of school for an individual child is that child's parent. There is no close second. The time has come to put the interests of Austin school children in first, before the misguided "interest" of the district in maintaining the failed status quo. Choice works for higher-income people, but it needs to be available to all children regardless of the income of their parents.