Photo by Julia Reihs / KUT. Members of the student-led group Integrate Austin speak out against segregation at an AISD school board meeting in November. The students called on the district to change boundary lines, so schools would be more racially and socioeconomically integrated.
Tuesday, July 7, 2020 by Claire McInerny

Schools in Travis County are not just segregated. They’re the most segregated in the state.

Valerie Sterne has always known anecdotally that schools in Austin are segregated. She used to be a teacher and an administrator with the Austin Independent School District, and saw firsthand that students of color and low-income students were all attending the same schools. When she left to get her PhD in education policy, she decided to study the issue and get hard numbers.

Even though she expected to confirm her suspicion, one result from the study she published last month was still surprising: Schools in Travis County are more segregated than anywhere else in the state.

“I knew it was segregated here, but I thought it would be similar to other urban counties in the state,” said Sterne, a first-year education policy and planning doctoral student at UT Austin. “And it’s not.”

Her research published through UT’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis used poverty rates at elementary schools to illustrate the segregation. In Austin ISD, for example, 55% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch (a metric often used to measure poverty). That means you might expect about half of the students at any school to live in poverty. But that’s not the case.

Sterne’s data shows that in Travis County and Austin ISD, students who live in poverty are concentrated at certain schools – and these are the schools Black and Hispanic students attend.

On average, her research found, white students in the county attend schools where 25% of the population is poor. Students in poverty make up 67% of the population at schools Black students attend, and 71% of the population at schools Hispanic students attend. The gap in school poverty rates is the largest in the state.

Sterne said looking at the poverty level of any school or district tells you a lot about the type of education a student receives: The more students at a school who live in poverty, the less resources there are to serve them. These schools also tend to have higher teacher turnover, teachers with less experience and less PTA money for extra support, she said. All of this leads to an opportunity gap.

Ricky Lowe, a research associate at IUPRA who helped conduct the study, said there are many reasons Austin’s schools are more segregated than in other urban cities like Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Gentrification has pushed Black and Hispanic families out of Austin neighborhoods and therefore out of many neighborhood schools, he said, so there are more students of color in those other cities.

“Austin was initially a small city,” Lowe said. “When we’re talking about Dallas County and Harris County, those have been big counties for a long time, so Black and Hispanic families have been living there for generations. There’s a lot more critical mass.”

The overall population of students going to Austin schools is also more diverse than in the other big Texas cities, where more wealthy and white families tend to live in the suburbs. Because of its demographics, Austin could be one of the most integrated school districts.

Sterne said she looked at counties similar to Travis in terms of diversity and size, but Travis County schools were still more segregated. She decided there must be something else at play.

“I think that we have some deep-seated racism in our city that we’re not addressing,” she said, looking not at the data but leaning on her experience as an educator. “I think white people in this town have been giving ourselves a pass for generations. We’ve been saying we’re a progressive city and not looking in the mirror at what our actions are, how they’re playing out.”

For example, there are white families who live in East Austin, but there are few white students who attend schools in that part of town, so they are majority Black and Hispanic. Sterne says families are buying homes and using the transfer policy so their children go to schools where they are either economically or racially in the majority.


‘Business As Usual’


After the study was published, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, a former AISD board president, hosted an online panel of education equity experts to discuss Sterne’s findings and the impact of segregation in Austin.

Panelist Terrance Green, an associate professor of education and policy at UT, said the research just proves what he has seen in schools across the country: that racist and white supremacist ideals have created this segregation.

For those confused about how school segregation still exists, he said, forget what segregation looked like in the past, when it was legal; these days, it’s part of the programs and policies we all accept as normal.

“Segregation is baked into the algorithm of how we do school, the practices, the policies,” Green said. “I don’t need to say a Black student and a white student, all I have to do is create categories of gifted and not gifted and it will begin to segregate itself. All I have to do is create classes that are advanced placement and those that are remedial classes, and it will start to segregate itself. Those are highly racialized processes.”

In Austin, schools with a lot of poverty and students of color don’t offer the same opportunities as wealthy white schools. That’s one consideration the district said it wanted to address with its school closure plan.

And that’s true not just at AISD, but across the country: Students of color are often underrepresented in advanced classes.

The current system of segregation is so easy to participate in, Green said. Practices accepted as normal when it comes to schools – like buying more expensive houses because the nearby schools are “better” – contribute to segregation.

“You don’t have to do anything to cause segregation to perpetuate, all you have to do is follow business as usual and it will continue,” he said.

AISD’s Chief Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley said ending segregation in schools will help all students. But she was quick to say forcing integration, like how AISD and other districts did in the past, won’t fix the problem. Integration won’t truly work until white families desire that kind of diversity in their schools.

“White children are being cheated. We think, ‘Oh, they’ve got the best programs, the best classes and the most experienced teachers,’ but they are not experiencing the world as it is,” Hawley said during the panel. “We are actually making white children very ill. They’re thinking they’re superior because when they go to AP classes and they’re the only ones there, and they look and see who is being punished, they get the sense of entitlement, and I want to call it a psychosis that somehow there is something inherently superior in them.”

Hawley, the district’s first equity officer, was hired to look into these issues across AISD – including in academics, the budget and choices like school closures. Last year, she proposed hiring someone to do an audit to evaluate how equitable the policies in every department in the district is. That was never initiated, even though many community members continue to call for it.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AISD: Austin's largest school district, AISD is the Austin Independent School District.

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