Austin Failed At Desegregation Before. That History Influences Today's School Closure Decisions.
While many people in Austin are questioning why the Austin Independent School District is closing and consolidating schools, Roxanne Evans says she saw it coming.
Evans covered education for the Austin American-Statesman back in the 1980s, when students were bused in an attempt to integrate schools. She says what’s happening now is a continuation of something that was never finished.
“The aftermath [of busing] was what we see today: The neighborhoods that were segregated before went back to being segregated,” she said. “That didn’t change a lot.”
AISD announced in February that it needs to close and consolidate schools throughout the district. The decision came after years of declining enrollment, on top of budget issues. The superintendent and school board have said they’d rather invest money in teachers and academic programs than upkeep at under-enrolled schools. They’ve promised that if they close schools, they will use the savings to improve programs and facilities at the ones that stay open.
Another promise the district has made: School closures won’t just happen in East Austin, where most of the under-enrolled schools are located. District officials say they want changes across the district, even in neighborhoods where schools are successful and well attended. Some parents have questioned that.
But it makes sense to Evans, who says in some ways, she's watching history repeat itself.
“You sort of have to know the history, what went on before, to understand why some of these schools are under-enrolled," she says, "why there’s sort of a stigma attached to certain schools."
Austin's Master Plan
It makes sense to start with Austin’s 1928 Master Plan. The city hired consulting engineers to help overhaul the city’s infrastructure, zoning and public services.
One of the main themes of the plan was how to get communities of color out of downtown – off land white residents wanted for themselves.
“It's a document that has coded language that talks about the beautification of Austin. It's coded with regards to African-American and Hispanic communities to say, ‘We're helping them,’” kYmberly Keeton, the African American community archivist at the Austin History Center, says.
Courts had recently ruled that zoning neighborhoods by race was unconstitutional. The engineers addressed this “race segregation problem” by suggesting Austin offer city services for minorities only in specific parts of town. They created a "negro district" in an area that is now east of I-35.
“It is our recommendation that the nearest approach to the solution of the race segregation problem will be the recommendation of this district as a negro district; and that all the facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area. This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks, and other duplicate facilities for this area.”
The master plan created the legal segregation that existed in Austin for decades.
The “negro district” was located on what was considered undesirable land. Fast forward to the present day, and developers see this cheap land as an easy way to make money. They're buying property up and fueling gentrification.
Gentrification has led to higher home prices, which, in turn, has driven many families out of East Austin. The people who are moving in, for the most part, don’t have kids. And that's one reason for AISD’s under-enrollment issue.
Desegregation Begins – And Then Stalls
From 1928 until 1954, students of color in Austin attended segregated schools on the East Side.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. The federal government said schools could no longer ban students from attending because of their race.
But the ruling didn’t change much in Austin.
“You have to remember, Texas being Texas, Texas believed that state law sometimes trumped federal law,” Evans says. “So there was kind of a lag in when Texas accepted they would have to comply with Brown v. Board.”
The lag lasted decades. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, AISD made little effort to integrate schools. On paper, any student was allowed to attend any school, but few students left their segregated communities.
By the 1970s, the federal government sued the district for not complying with Brown v. Board. With the courts involved, dramatic changes began in AISD. Two all-black schools in East Austin – Kealing Middle School and L.C. Anderson High School – were closed as a way to force those students to all-white schools in other parts of the city.
Thus began one-way busing, where students of color were transported to schools outside their own neighborhoods. While minority students were attending all-white schools, courts continued to debate whether one-way busing satisfied Brown v. Board.
After almost a decade, a judge decided it didn't.
As a result, in 1980, the district began busing both white and minority students – finally integrating all AISD schools – 26 years after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling.
'Is This Really Integration?'
Many families and students initially protested crosstown busing in the ’80s, but the district went forward with its plan.
For six years, students spent their mornings and afternoons taking long bus rides to different parts of town. Evans, who was writing for the Statesman at the time, said reactions weren't predictable.
Some white parents welcomed busing as a way for their students to interact with kids from East Austin; others pushed back, saying they wanted to stay in neighborhood schools. Evans heard similar things from black and Latino families.
“There was a divide in the African-American community,” Evans says. “There were parents who were adamant that they wanted their child to continue crosstown busing, because that was the only way they could guarantee their child had a good education.”
"Once those schools were identified as one-race schools, that meant a lot of people were not eager to send their children there."
As part of her reporting, Evans wanted to see what this integration looked like. One morning she stood out at a bus stop, when it was still dark, to ride the bus with black students from East Austin to Sunset Valley Elementary in Southwest Austin.
“They got off the bus and most of them went into classrooms with each other,” she says. “Back then, many of the students were in classes based on ability and many of the students were in special ed classrooms. It sort of drove home the point: Is this integration?”
In 1987, the school board voted to end crosstown busing for elementary students. The decision created 16 elementary schools made up almost entirely of minority students. To prevent the federal government from intervening again, the district created a plan for these so-called “priority schools.” AISD invested more money in them and closely monitored academics for a few years.
“Now, when I look at the schools that are under-enrolled and low performing, they tend to be those same schools,” Evans says. “What I underestimated was that once those schools were identified as one-race schools, that meant that a lot of people were not eager to send their children there. It was sort of the beginning of the end for many of those schools.”
Learning From History
Declining enrollment is a major reason AISD says it needs to close and consolidate schools. Unlike when the district closed two all-black schools to force integration and implemented one-way busing – both of which prompted lawsuits – AISD says the changes this time won’t just happen in East Austin; schools throughout the district will be affected.
School board member LaTisha Anderson, who represents much of East Austin, says she's in favor of that plan. She was one of those little kids Evans followed to Sunset Valley during busing in the ’80s. Now, as an adult advocating for students in East Austin, she understands one reason students in her neighborhoods haven’t done as well: AISD didn’t bring the same opportunities to these schools.
“I would say [for] far too long in this district, the squeaky wheel has gotten the grease,” she says.
The district has said part of this shakeup will include spreading out academic programs and opportunities. Anderson says she is excited to see that, but it infuriates her to hear parents in other parts of the city get upset that children from low-income families or schools with lower test scores might be rezoned to their schools.
Anderson says it’s time for all students and families to be treated the same in AISD.
“When I hear we don’t want 'those kids' to go to 'our' schools, I would have to say let me correct you,” she says. “Because those are our schools, too, because we pay taxes for them, too.”