AISD, Texas Civil Rights Project disagree on district funding inequity

Inequity in Austin ISD's school funding was the message of a Texas Civil Rights Project report released in September. The advocacy group claimed schools in some parts of town—such as West Austin—are wealthier and thus have better education and resources than those in poorer areas. In December AISD responded saying some of the claims in the report are false and based on anecdotal or incomplete data.

TCRP filed suit against Clint ISD in El Paso County in August regarding funding inequity and could consider similar litigation against AISD, TCRP Director Jim Harrington said.

"We are disappointed that AISD administrators answered our report with bureaucratic deflection and defensiveness rather than responding to our call to engage the community in an honest dialogue about how to achieve greater equity in all of our schools," he said in a news release.

AISD: TCRP claims false

The response from AISD's Budget and Finance Department said many claims in TCRP's report are false.

The TCRP's report stated that AISD supports the private subsidization of higher-income schools with funds including direct contributions and grants, sometimes by $1,000 per student more than the funds to support students in lower-income schools. AISD said it could not verify that and the TCRP did not make it clear how it got that number.

AISD's accounting of activity funds is in line with standard accounting practices for outside agency funds such as private resource funding, and no law or district policy requires the district to account for financial transactions of outside organizations such as child-care programs, according to AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley-Abram.

"I don't think that they proved that there is inequity in the district," Conley-Abram said. "I'm not saying that there are not inequities in the district; I'm just saying their methodology did not prove that."

AISD launched an analysis of its funding model this year and is working to determine what inequities exist in the district, Conley-Abram said.

District seeks solutions

AISD board trustees have considered implementing a funding system based on the number of students in a school and those students' needs, Conley-Abram said. Such a program would replace the current method basing school funding on staff size.

It's too early to tell how a student-based funding model might affect schools in Southwest Austin, she said.

"It's just in the analysis phase," Conley-Abram said. "We've had two briefings with the board and expect to come out with some early conclusions about what the data shows regarding inequity in early spring."

TCRP recommended 10 changes to AISD, including a "tithing" option modeled after a system used by schools in Portland, Ore. Affluent schools keep the first $10,000 in private funds raised, and one-third of the schools' additional funds raised go to a districtwide foundation and are distributed to high-needs schools, Harrington said.

Conley-Abram said the TCRP recommendations asked AISD to control funds that are beyond its authority.

AISD also had already decided to expand the REACH program, an effort of Education Austin and the Austin Chamber of Commerce that offers AISD educators financial incentives for boosting student's academic achievement.

AISD to address inequity

According to AISD, two essential questions must be answered before drawing conclusions about funding inequities in the district:

Horizontal equity: Do schools and students with similar needs receive appropriately equal funding? This is also known as the "equal treatment of equals." For example, does a student on the free and reduced-lunch program at one school receive the same funding as a student on the same program at another school?

Vertical equity: Do schools and students with different needs receive appropriately different funding? In other words, a school with a greater population of students who cost more to educate should receive more funding than an "average" school to compensate for this difference. This is also known as the "unequal treatment of unequals."

The district is working to find the answers to these questions as part of its analysis of its current funding model, according to AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley-Abram.

Source: Austin ISD