Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the definition of transfer data. To view this story with additional graphics as it appeared in the April edition of Community Impact, click here.

As a $60 million budget shortfall looms over Austin ISD, enrollment numbers are slowly declining, and data from the Texas Education Agency shows as of the 2022-23 school year over 16,000 former AISD students currently attend a different district or charter school.

Community Impact analyzed data from the TEA and the U.S. Census Bureau to learn where students are going. Overwhelmingly, data indicates families are choosing charter schools.

“Many of the urban districts in Texas are facing enrollment declines,” AISD Chief Financial Officer Eduardo Ramos said. “Whether it’s because parents are homeschooling their students or students are going to charter schools.”

District funding relies on the basic student allotment of $6,160 per student, based on enrollment and attendance. Over the past 10 years, AISD has seen enrollment decline, which officials are working to slow, Ramos said.

The overview

Transfer data from the TEA shows 90% of students that transferred out of AISD for the 2023-24 school year choose a charter school. These are public schools and receive federal funding but are subject to fewer state laws, according to the TEA.

Bob Popinski, senior director of policy for public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas, said for the 2023-24 school year a drop in enrollment impacted traditional Texas school districts while charter schools saw an increase in enrollment.

“Over time, we have seen a drastic increase in enrollment in our charter schools, and a decrease in enrollment especially in urban areas of traditional school districts,” Popinski said.

Popinski noted that some of the enrollment issue are due to early childhood education not enrolling at the same level it was prior to 2020, and potential upticks in private and homeschooling. No Texas agency tracks private or homeschool student enrollment.

Matthew Abbott, superintendent of charter Wayside Schools, said many student transfers come in during the middle school years—sixth to eighth grade—and are often from surrounding districts, such as AISD or Del Valle ISD.

“[Students are] transferring in usually because the parents are wanting a different opportunity for their kids, or they felt like maybe their [students’] needs were not met wherever they were before,” Abbott said.

Wayside Schools saw over 1,600 students transfer in for the 2022-23 school year, with 76% coming from AISD, according to data from the TEA. Wayside did not report any transfers out.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows over 110,000 school-aged children lived within AISD’s boundaries in 2022. The district’s enrollment for the 2022-23 school year was over 73,000, meaning the district captured about 66% of local students.
By the numbers

Enrollment at AISD has remained on a steady decline for the past five years. From the 2017-18 school year to the 2022-23 school year, the district experienced an 10% decline in enrollment.

The number of students who have left AISD increased by 89% from the 2012-13 school year to 2022-23; enrollment within the same time frame has not seen any major growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There are a few outliers in the area, including Dripping Springs ISD, where enrollment has steadily increased over the past five years, while both transfers in and out each year have remained at the same pace, according to the TEA.

“Just because you have students leaving doesn’t mean that your costs necessarily diminish,” Popinski said. “The decline in enrollment is not spread out equally among campuses.”
What it means

Families consider different educational paths for a variety of reasons. Austin parent Drea Mastromatteo is exploring charter schools for her neurodivergent son as she fears the AISD school he is zoned for would not provide him with resources to succeed.

Blanca Martinez, community outreach specialist for NYOS Charter School, said the biggest “pluses” to attending include the flexibility for teachers and diversity. She said students receive two recesses and academically move at their own pace.

AISD parent Janell Moyes said she considered charter school for her fourth and sixth grade kids for the benefits Martinez highlighted.

“A lot of time in public education is spent waiting for everybody in the class to get on the same page so they can move on together,” Moyes said.

However, Moyes said she chose to stay in AISD to receive special education services, which she felt would not be the case in a charter school.

AISD parent Laurie Solis has two students in the district and another that graduated. Solis says she could consider a charter or private school for her kids, but the community at AISD and social emotional learning are reasons she stays.

“Every one of my children I feel are thriving personally, academically [and] emotionally,” Solis said. “I feel like that's because AISD has always been ahead of what they need to prioritize.”

Going forward

Ramos said for fiscal year 2024-25, officials hope to slow the enrollment decline by following up with families who have transferred out and tackling the projected $60 million budget deficit by proposed cuts to software, service contracts and staffing; the proposed cuts would reduce the deficit in half.

At a board meeting Feb. 23, AISD Superintendent Matias Segura pointed to the basic student allotment not increasing since 2019 as a financial constraint.

“The Legislature has chosen not to increase public education funding,” Segura said. “And so when we did agree to the $52 million deficit [for fiscal year 2023-24], there were certain things that were unknown at that point.”

Popinski said to keep up with inflation, the basic allotment would need to be closer to $7,100 per student. Other financial strains include COVID-19 stimulus funding expiring and an increase in school safety requirements.

“It is a mixture of so many things and not just enrollment into charter schools increasing, although that is a big issue for Austin ISD,” Popinski said.