A Tale of Two Districts

Posted on

By Seth Rau–As the AB 394 Legislative and Technical Advisory Committees continue their charge to determine the ideal structure for the Clark County School District, it is valuable to study other similar regions around the country to see how they have proceeded in establishing their school districts. Having moved to San Antonio in the past few months (where full disclosure I am employed by the San Antonio Independent School District), I believe there are important and useful comparisons between Clark and Bexar counties, which are similar in size and demographic diversity. The county comparison works well as both the Vegas and San Antonio metropolitan areas are contained largely in one county (San Antonio’s metropolitan area extends beyond Bexar County but the vast majority of the population is in Bexar County).


According to the 2014 U.S. Census estimates, there are approximately 200,000 more people in Clark County than Bexar County (2.069 million vs. 1.855 million). Yet Bexar County contains 20 school districts (five extend into other counties), while Clark County contains one. Bexar County also boasts a larger and broader array of charter and private school options. Other demographic data points are comparable. The poverty rate in Bexar County in 17.6 percent compared to 15.1 percent in Clark County. Over a third of the population in both counties lives in homes where languages other than English are primarily spoken. However, there is a much larger percentage of the population that is Latino in San Antonio (59 percent) than in Vegas (30 prevent). Many of the families living in San Antonio have been there for multiple generations, unlike most of the Latino community in Southern Nevada.


With the exception of the three school districts that are tied to U.S. military bases (Fort Sam Houston, Lackland, and Randolph Field), the other 17 districts are not based on clear geographic boundaries. For example, the highly successful and affluent Alamo Heights Independent School District (ISD) primarily includes the wealthy enclave of Alamo Heights but also includes wealthy adjoining neighborhoods in the city of San Antonio that would prefer to attend its higher performing schools. Their per pupil tax base amounts to over one million dollars, whereas no other district in the county is over $500,000.[1] The three largest districts are Northside Independent School District (covering north and northwest of downtown with a mix of both wealthier and poorer schools with 102,129 students), North East Independent School District (including primarily wealthier areas northeast of downtown with 68,205 students), and San Antonio Independent School District (containing the poorer urban core with 53,857 students).


One of the major expressed concerns in dividing CCSD into precincts or separate school districts would be that the new entities would not reflect demographic and racial equity. Both community members and political leaders have expressed concern that most of CCSD’s under-resourced students would remain in the urban core while Summerlin and Henderson would be carved into their own more affluent, autonomous school zones.


Smaller school districts with unequal levels of demographic and racial equity is exactly what exists in San Antonio. And the outcomes are mixed. San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) has 92 percent of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL). Over 90 percent of students are Latino and 7 percent are African-American. The graduation rate in San Antonio ISD is over 80 percent. In contrast, CCSD’s graduation rates are just now surpassing the 70 percent mark. In Alamo Heights ISD, the graduation rate has averaged 95 percent, and 80 percent of its students are college ready without the need for remediation. In contrast, only 40 percent in SAISD reach that same level of college readiness.


Across Bexar County, students are doing better on the whole, as the countywide graduation rate has reached 88 percent. But stark and troubling differences between the affluent and impoverished districts still exist.[2] That being said, families continue to choose charter schools and private options within the urban core. (Charter schools have far lower graduation rates that traditional public schools, but that should change soon with more high-quality charters focusing on high school coming on line, and the State closing low performing schools). Given the enrollment growth in private schools and charters, San Antonio districts have not been successful in attracting students in the urban core, as Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colorado have been in recent years.


Another issue to consider in deconsolidation or decentralization is whether precincts (or even schools) have the capacity to take on greater management and administrative duties. In San Antonio, the situation is bleak in some districts. In South San Antonio ISD (10,014 students), the Superintendent wrote a 153-page letter to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to investigate school board members that are interfering with the operations of the district. Both prominent Democrats and Republicans have publicly called on TEA to takeover South San Antonio ISD following the release of a report which found that the small school district did not know how to handle its finances among other serious concerns. The management of the small districts in San Antonio often brings up questions as to whether there are enough qualified school board members and leading officials to lead these districts. Despite the significant struggles with governance and management, however, South San Antonio ISD is still graduating 89 percent of its students, which are 97 percent Latino and 92 percent on Free and Reduced Lunch.


While San Antonio struggles with demographic and racial equity and good governance and management, the academic outcomes are stronger in San Antonio (and nearly all urban Texas districts) than those in Clark County School District for two reasons: teacher recruitment and the funding formula. Unlike in CCSD (where teachers can be assigned to a wide variety of schools), teachers who come to teach in urban San Antonio school districts know that they will be assigned to urban schools with a significant number of students in poverty. Therefore, the district must pay them more and start recruiting early. The starting teacher salary in SAISD is over $50,000 a year and most districts in Bexar County have similar starting salaries. Also, districts must start hiring nearly a year out to be able to fill all positions, as most districts are unwilling to start the year with long-term substitute teachers.


While the Texas funding formula is not perfect and has been the subject of nearly 50 years of litigation (which began with parents in Edgewood ISD, another urban Bexar County district, suing the State in 1968), it is more equitable than the current Nevada system. Among its most prominent features is a Robin Hood tax that recaptures local property taxes above a certain level from the wealthiest districts in the state (a mechanism that the Nevada Supreme Court banned in 2011) to give them to poorer districts to provide more state funds to these districts (Alamo). While the premise of this system is equitable, a Travis County District Judge ruled in 2014 that this plan was not producing sufficient revenue for property-poor districts to fund a weighted student funding formula. The current legal proceedings in Texas revolve around how to increase the weights rather than fight for their establishment as in Nevada. The Texas school funding system is not entirely equitable due to higher concentration of funding for small districts with more affluent rural students (similar to Nevada), but there is an understanding in law that districts (and schools) with more difficult to teach students require greater funding. However, it remains unknown how the Texas Supreme Court will rule on the latest lawsuit (a ruling is expected in spring 2016) and how the Legislature will respond to that ruling.


Lessons from San Antonio suggest that the size and distribution of students in whatever physical boundaries result from the AB 394 process are not as important as getting the funding formula correct. Many districts that have implemented autonomous schools (e.g. Denver, Hawaii), in fact, have implemented it concurrently with weighted student funding. As Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin (2013) show in their study of Texas principals, strong school leaders can lead to an additional seven-month of student growth and the converse is true for low performing principals. These academic gains were sustained across socio-economic and racial groups throughout the State. Finding systems to ensure strong leadership in schools and implementing an equitable funding formula should be key focuses of the AB 394 committees moving forward more than a debate over specific boundaries or school autonomy models that have a mixed track record of success.

Seth Rau is the Legislator Coordinator for the San Antonio Independent School District and previously served as the Policy Director at Nevada Succeeds.

[1] San Antonio Economic Development Foundation website. School Districts. http://www.sanantonioedf.com/living/education/school-districts/

[2] Council of Greater Bexar County. P-16 worksheet. http://www.p16plus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/CIRC-4-year-hs-graduation-version-3-2.pdf