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Civil Rights Group Wants Austin School District to Address Inequity

Kate McGee, KUT News

The Texas Civil Rights Project wants the Austin Independent School District to conduct a self-assessment of equity among campuses. If not, the group says it will file a complaint with the federal government which could result in a civil rights investigation of the district.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a letter to school districts in the fall. It highlighted disparities in educational resources in public schools nationwide and suggested ways to make sure districts are providing all students equal access to resources. The letter suggested a self-assessment and provided ways for school districts to implement one.

“It’s not an issue of laying blame," said Joe Berra, lawyer with the TCRP. "It’s just an issue of saying, ‘Let’s see where we are now. Let’s make a conscious effort to address them.’”

In 2012, the TCRP released a report showing inequity among AISD schools from neighborhood to neighborhood. The report cited differences in extracurricular programs and facilities. It also documented a large difference in the amount of private resources campuses receive.

When that report was first released, Berra said, the district was defensive.

"We want to move beyond that and see it as an issue we can address and tackle honestly and recognize that some of these disparities build up regardless of the good intentions at the top," Berra said. "Because we're dealing with the legacy of segregation and poverty in our community."

During the recent school board campaign, multiple candidates made equity a priority. At last night's induction, District One Trustee Edmund Gordon said educational equity was a main concern, especially in his East Austin district. AISD Board President Gina Hinojosa agreed equity is a priority, but said the district needs to work on fixing its financial problems first.

"We are in a financial crisis right now because of the antiquated funding system that the legislature has imposed on all school districts," says Hinojosa. "Our focus right now is getting more money for all kids in the district, but absolutely part of that work is making sure that every kid has an opportunity to succeed."

The TCRP is asking the district to respond to its letter by January 20. But under current open meeting laws, it would be difficult for the new board to publicly respond before that date. In a statement, Austin ISD says it's reviewing the TCRP's letter.

"The District believes we have common ground with the Texas Civil Rights Project in that we both agree that all children within AISD deserve equal chances to succeed in life. AISD values rigorous academic programs and educational opportunities that support students and their families. Throughout the years, AISD has been working with the Texas Civil Rights Project on these issues and hopes to continue doing so."

However, the TCRP says the district has not implemented any of their past suggestions.

"They haven't taken up some of our ideas," Berra said. "We're a little frustrated."

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