Tensions Rise as School Board Discussion Turns to Race

Feb 12, 2015

An Austin school board discussion about equity between the district’s campuses grew tense this week when the conversation between two school board members turned to diversity at the district’s nationally recognized high school, Liberal Arts and Science Academy. LASA is a magnet program located on the upper floors of LBJ High School, which mostly educates minority students.

The conversation between Trustee Ted Gordon (District 1) and Trustee Robert Schneider (District 7) was sparked by a recent Austin American-Statesman article. Melissa Taboada reported that less than a quarter of the students in AISD’s four magnet programs are Hispanic. Sixty percent of students district-wide are Hispanic. The article also reported that the number of minority students at LASA has declined over the past five years.

At Monday night’s meeting, Schneider argued the article contained inaccuracies. He asserted that LASA is the most diverse high school in the district.

Last year, 54 percent of students at LASA were white, 23 percent were Hispanic, two percent were African American and 16 percent were Asian.  In contrast, LBJ High School’s student population was 60 percent Hispanic, 37 percent African American and two percent white.

A quick look at student demographics at various Austin ISD high schools raises questions about the assertion that LASA is the most diverse high school in AISD. For instance, Anderson High School in northwest Austin has 53 percent white students, 31 percent Hispanic and five percent African American students.

At Monday’s meeting, School Board President Gina Hinojosa also questioned the statement. Trustee Gordon questioned the assertion, too.  

“When the percentage of African Americans, just to take my own personal interest in identity, at these magnet schools is as low as it is, regardless of what your definition of diversity is, to say it is a diverse setting and it’s okay the way it is, is — I won’t say insulting because I don’t want to go that far — but incomprehensible,” Gordon said. “There’s a problem. You’ve got an upstairs and a downstairs. And we’re downstairs. That’s a problem.”

Schneider rejected that idea.

“I’ve heard the upstairs, downstairs argument for years,” Schneider said. “And being there when it started, it was started because we deliberately intended and wanted to disaggregate the results, so scores kept by magnet folks didn’t mask failings of the neighborhood school.”

Austin ISD has a low African American population to begin with. Last year, around 8,000 out of the district’s 85,000 students were African American. So, it’s harder to determine if some schools' low African American population is due to a lack of equality and diversity or a lack of African Americans in the district overall.

But the disparity is a little clearer between LASA and LBJ. Last year there were 327 African American students on that campus. Just 20 of them attended LASA.  Even though LASA and LBJ are in the same building, they are considered two different schools by the state. In the past, some have accused the district of segregating students within that building. 

Schneider also argued LASA is an open application school where any student can apply. Plus, he says the school’s admissions process takes steps to not identify students by race.

“The kids don’t care,” Schneider said. “I know the kids don’t care because I’ve been there long enough to talk about upstairs and downstairs folks about, ‘do you mind being upstairs or downstairs?’ It’s an adult issue, it’s not something the kids are saying ‘I’d rather be upstairs or downstairs.’ To me, this is yet another thing of people go in about their own perceptions of what things are.”

That’s when the conversation got personal.

“I deeply resent that the notion that [Trustee Schneider] know[s] and I don’t [know] what’s going on in these places,” Gordon said. “My child went to the Science Academy. And I know there’s at least one kid who didn’t think it was right that white kids were up top and black kids were on the bottom. At least one.”

“This is a volatile subject,” Gordon said. “So I’m going to try to be brief and measured. I have yet to call anybody racist. I have not said at all that anybody at LASA is racist or is prejudiced in any way. I only contested [Trustee Schneider’s] assertion that it is a diverse campus. From my perspective, what the Science Academy represents is colorblind racism. By refusing to see color and race and by refusing to look at the possibility of institutionalized racism, we’re able to look at racial inequity in the eye and claim it doesn’t exist.”

Both Gordon and Schneider’s children were students at LASA. But their divergent views as a trustee and as a parent in some ways is a direct representation of the larger issue about the historical role of race in AISD, especially when it comes to issues of equity in resources, qualified teachers and programming in schools depending on the neighborhood. While Schneider is arguing that LASA views every child equally when they apply, Gordon argues equality doesn’t guarantee equity.

Historically, East Austin schools have tended to receive fewer outside donations from parents or corporations, and teacher turnover is higher in those schools. Students in East Austin schools tend to score lower on state standardized tests than West Austin schools. Race and economics come into play when you look at student demographics in East and West Austin schools. Students in East Austin tend to come from low-income families of color. Students in West Austin schools are predominantly white students from middle to upper class families.

That’s why the Texas Civil Rights Project is pushing AISD to conduct a self-assessment of equity among campuses. On Monday, the board decided to have its Historically Underutilized Business Subcommittee look into whether and how AISD would do a self-assessment of equity. According to a draft timeline, an outside provider could conduct a self-assessment over the summer. That provider would bring results back to the school board by the end of the year. The subcommittee will bring its findings to the school board at the end of March.

Joe Berra is an attorney with the TCRP. He says he was encouraged by the board's discussion about equity, but it doesn’t mean the TCRP will stop pressing the district on this issue.

“We have to ensure process unfolds in a way that moves us toward a goal and not toward some sort of window dressing or not toward another report that gets left in a drawer somewhere," Berra says.