Public schools in Austin get federal and state money based on students’ attendance and socioeconomic makeup.
How schools supplement that funding often depends on the private resources available from foundations, non-profits or parents.
While many schools in Austin have robust Parent Teacher Association operations, others, mostly with high percentages of low-income students (so-called Title I schools), struggle to fundraise within their parent base because of a lack of extra resources and time to write grants or work with businesses to bring in money.
Many times, those schools must look to private foundations and non-profits to provide extra programs for students and families.
At Pecan Springs Elementary in Northeast Austin, Skylar Lightfoot sits in the cafeteria greeting about 50 students—all by name—as they check in for the after school program.
Lightfoot is the after school director at Pecan Springs. Her program provides three hours of structured activity every day: homework help, exercise and weekly activities.
“There’s a lot of learning that goes on after school, there’s not a lot of sitting at a desk," Lightfoot says. "We really try to focus on all the different types of learners and our instructors have the freedom to be able to get up and move around if they need to, and base it more on the kids and their interests and their levels of participation in the day.”
Pecan Springs Principal Elaine McKinney says there’s a dedicated group of parents at Pecan Springs, but many hold multiple jobs – and don’t have time or money to give. The Pecan Springs Parent Teacher Association only has about 20 members.
This year, the school faced another challenge: federal funding for its after school program dried up.
While 97 percent of Pecan Springs students come from low-income households – and school leaders say these kinds of programs are crucial for many students – programs also cost money, which Principal McKinney says isn't unlimited.
“If we want to bring an active life, that’s money," McKinney says. "If we want to bring in theater arts, that’s money. Taking them on field trips, that’s money. Supplies for tie-dye t-shirts, that’s money. Those activities, robotics, that’s money."
That’s where Andy Roddick comes in. Yes, the retired tennis player and head of the Andy Roddick Foundation.
Roddick’s foundation gave $160,000 for the after school program, which was born out of the foundation's summer program at Pecan Springs.
“One of things we go by at the foundation, one of our sayings, is 'talent is universal, opportunity is not,'" says Roddick. “I wasn’t one of these kids, I was given every opportunity to succeed. I did, but I do feel the responsibility to pay it forward because I had those opportunities. So we want to provide those same opportunities for the kids that maybe weren’t born with it.”
The need for private partners to fund services isn’t new in East Austin. Many schools rely on non-profits and outside groups to provide supplies, resources and programs. But it’s not how all campuses in the city provide extra programs.
In Southwest Austin, Baranoff Elementary School recently celebrated its annual Fall Festival—one of three big fundraisers the school’s Parent Teachers’ Association hosts annually. Baranoff gets most of its private funding from its PTA, which has more than 400 members. Many volunteer their time, organize special projects or donate money. Plus, the PTA even has a parent volunteer who writes grants for additional money.
“A lot of it with PTA stuff is just parent-driven," says Peggy Kemp, PTA President at Baranoff. "If we have a parent that’s very passionate about something, then that’s where we go.”
That includes an ecology pond, fitness trail, and reading program. Plus, the PTA chooses a sister-school in East Austin and provides supplies and training for parents at that school’s PTA.
At Mills elementary—also in Southwest Austin—the PTA’s budget this year is about $57,000. Dana Bacon is the PTA president there. He says sometimes people don’t realize just how big a role PTAs play in providing resources.
“I think there are parents who are still surprised to hear that our PTA is helping to pay for things like photocopiers and a tech teacher’s salary," Bacon says. "I think there are a lot of moving parts in education funding and using PTA as that tool to level things off across a community, it might not seem like the best way to get there when that conversation might take place at another level.”
In 2012, the Texas Civil Rights Project released a report that says private money in schools with wealthier families and connections creates inequity between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.
“Some of it is financial resources, some of it is cultural resources, networks in community that support some schools more than others," says Jim Berra with the TCRP.
Austin ISD can’t tell PTA's how to spend their money, but the Texas Civil Rights Project wants the district to create a system that would level the playing field between schools.
Jim Harrington directs the group. He says individuals won’t do it—so the district should step up.
“People are going to say, 'I’d rather spend the money on my kids only than spend it on the whole community,'" Harrington says. "Part of the problem is lack of leadership in changing the way we think about this.”
Some school board members say they’ve heard similar things from parents at wealthier schools. Harrington and Berra say they hope a new superintendent and school board will be more open to having conversations about equity.
But Austin ISD School Board President Vincent Torres says low-income campuses have access to federal dollars that higher income schools do not and there are low-income students at wealthier campuses. For example, 14 percent of students at Baranoff Elementary are economically disadvantaged, but Baranoff doesn't get federal funding specifically for those students, called Title I funding.
“You need to consider all these types of opportunities and programs that are only available to one school or another and are not available to West Austin schools," Torres says.
The Texas Civil Rights Project rejects that argument. They say Title I funding should be seen as supplemental. The group says if AISD doesn’t try to fix the problem, it plans to sue the district over inequitable funding.