Education

Austin ISD, the University of Texas, Austin Community College, Texas A&M University, charter schools, legislative issues, and anything else related to K-12, public education, higher education and workforce development in Central Texas, Travis County, and Austin.

Jennifer Whitney/Texas Tribune

SAN ANTONIO — Ask Phyllis Causey what time she goes to lunch, and the third-grade teacher will give a very specific answer: 11:55 a.m.

“I live on a timer,” she said.

Every minute is accounted for in her meticulously planned workdays. To some extent, that is true every school year. But last fall, for the first time in her 12 years of teaching, 23 students were enrolled in her San Antonio elementary school class — making those minutes even more precious.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has weighed in on the use of so-called pink slime in beef served in the government's free and reduced-price school lunch program.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is in Austin, where he was a keynote speaker at South by Southwest’s second annual SXSWedu conference. But Duncan also took time today to speak to a crowd at Austin Community College’s Eastview campus for a “town hall” discussion on education issues.  

But once applause greeting Ducan settled, he received  a more abrupt welcome: Three Occupy Austin members stood and shouted out a prepared statement attacking the privatization of public schools and other educational grievances.

The "mic check" can be read on Occupy Austin Twitter magnet Kit O'Connell's website. It reads in part (emphasis in original): "As Secretary of Education, Your job is to discover a way to provide schools & teachers PUBLIC resources & funding, NOT from private charters & corporations."

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

The Austin school district wants to ask voters for more money. But it’s still trying to determine when to do that. Holding a tax rate vote during the November general election potentially could be less expensive, but one seasoned political consultant suggests it would be “cheap and stupid.”

College and university presidents are wringing their hands over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to revisit the issue of affirmative action next fall. Critics of racial preferences are thrilled because the court could significantly restrict the use of race in admissions, but proponents of affirmative action say this would be a huge setback for institutions struggling to diversify their student body.

Nathan Bernier/KUT News

Parents with children at Allan Elementary school now have an extra two weeks to decide if they want their kids to enroll in a controversial charter school program launching next year. The Austin Independent School District announced this afternoon that it has set a new deadline for March 9. The original deadline was last Friday, February 24. 

Photo by KUT News

The U.S. Supreme Court will revisit the issue of race in college admissions

Today, the court agreed to hear a challenge to the affirmative action policy at the University of Texas. The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, who argues she was denied admission to the university because of UT's race-conscious policy.

It's the second time the court has taken up the issue in the past 10 years. In 2003, the court upheld the University of Michigan's use of race in assessing law school applicants by a vote of 5-4. But today's court is more conservative. Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion in the Michigan case. She's since been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito – who tends to vote with the court’s more conservative bloc.

Yale law professor Peter Schuck tells KUT News a number of factors outside the court’s University of Michigan ruling could be in play, as each state university system differs. Here in Texas, Schuck points to the effect the UT system’s “top 10 percent” rule could play.

Photo by KUT News

The Austin ISD school board will discuss alternatives to their current, longstanding consultation agreement with Education Austin tonight.

Nathan Bernier, KUT News

Bowing to pressure from parents, superintendents and state lawmakers, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said he will defer for one year a rule that would have required a new standardized test account for 15 percent of a student’s final course grade. The waiver applies to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR test). 

Photo by ChrisMPowell http://www.flickr.com/photos/85175437@N00/

In an early morning drug bust on the Texas Christian University campus, 17 students were arrested — a record number for the school — for allegedly dealing drugs including marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine, acid, and prescription drugs such as Xanax and hydrocodone.

The arrests were the result of a six-month investigation conducted by the Fort Worth Police Department in conjunction with TCU Campus Police into drug selling in an around the TCU campus. According to university officials, 17 of the students have been "separated" from the TCU campus and face expulsion if found guilty.

Photo by jrandallc http://www.flickr.com/photos/jrandallc/

The Lake Travis Cavaliers won the last five Class 4A state football championships. But now the University Interscholastic League is bumping up Lake Travis to 5A, the division populated by the state's largest high schools. As the Austin American-Statesman notes, that puts Lake Travis in a district with Westlake, Bowie, Austin High, Anderson, Del Valle and Akins.

Photo by Jessie Wang for KUT News

Some high profile members of the education community aren't pleased with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott's speech yesterday criticizing the role of testing in Texas public schools. 

Speaking to 4,000 school officials at the Texas Association of School Administrators' annual midwinter conference, Scott received a standing ovation when he called for an accountability system that measured "what happens on every single day in the life of a school besides testing day." He also said that he would not certify a ban on social promotion next year unless schools received more money from the state to offer remedial classes to students. 

The Austin school board will vote tonight on the schematic design for a new $40 million district-wide performing arts center to be built next to the Dell Children’s Medical Center at the corner of Mueller Boulevard and East 51st Street. The board approved buying the empty 3.5 acre lot last April for about $4 million.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

The Austin ISD board will vote tonight on whether to spend $16 million left over from the 2008 bond package. But at least one item on the plan dealing with an in-district charter school is likely face some opposition.

Back in 2008, Austin voters approved  $345 million in spending for the school district. Then the recession hit. Construction prices dropped. And AISD wound up saving a bunch of money.

Now, the school district wants to spend $16 million of the $19 million in left over “bond contingency funds.”  The school district’s lawyers say that’s okay as long as it fits with the original intention of the bond.

Some of the money would pay for dozens of critical renovations at schools across town, like replacing an elevator at Anderson High School, repairing the heating and cooling system, and fixing waste pipes under the kitchen at Eastside Memorial High School.

Photo courtesy www.flickr.com/jesabele

A judge has been named to hear several lawsuits brought by school districts against the State of Texas, to protest the way public education is funded.

Judge John Dietz, of the 250th Judicial District Civil Court in Travis County, will preside over the suits. The news was trumpeted by the Equity Center, a coalition of several poorer school districts. An Equity Center offshoot, the Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition sued the state last year alleging Texas’ system of school funding was unconstitutional. As the coalition wrote in a complaint, “Taxpayers in low wealth districts who are willing to tax themselves at the highest rates allowed are unable to access the same dollars for education as taxpayers in high wealth districts who tax themselves at a lower rate.”

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

The lockdown at Manor High School has been lifted, after it was determined the "suspicious device" in question was a non-explosive replica of a military grenade.

Meanwhile, Pflugerville ISD police and the Pflugerville police department briefly investigated a threat at Hendrickson High School before giving the all-clear.

The following statement is from the Manor ISD website:

This morning an unauthorized adult brought a suspicious device onto the Manor High School campus. The device was only seen in the school parking lot and the person never entered the building. All students and staff were moved to Manor Middle School as a safety precaution. Travis County Sheriff’s Office has determined that the device was a replica grenade. Law enforcement and school officials are in the process of returning students to their campus. Students can be released to parents from Manor High School but we prefer that students remain on campus so instruction is not disrupted any further.

Update: The following announcement is posted on the Manor ISD website:

Photo by KUT News

A year-old report on “Texas’ School-to-Prison” pipeline is spreading across the Web, due to a report in The Guardian looking critically at police arrests and citations in Texas (and Austin) schools, and follows recent efforts within AISD to change the way it disciplines students. 

The Guardian describes the story of Sarah Bustamante, a 12-year old student at Austin’s Fulmore Middle School. She was issued a criminal misdemeanor citation by a campus police officer for what she describes as spraying herself with two bursts of perfume during class.

This phenomenon – issuing criminal citations for student behavior that, in the past, wouldn’t earn offenders much more than a trip to the principal’s office – is examined at length in a report from Texas Appleseed.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

Teacher salaries have not budged for the last two years in Austin ISD. And it was that way for a lot of districts across the state in the wake of last year’s $5 billion in cuts to public education.

But now some school districts, including several around Austin, are thinking about raising salaries next school year. And AISD may not want to be left behind.

According to one analysis that will be presented to board members tonight, Austin ISD ranks 15th in teacher pay, compared to other Texas school districts. That’s only if you include employees' social security contributions paid by the district. Otherwise, AISD is 18th.

Photo by Callie Richmond for the Texas Tribune

As Texas schools whittle their budgets in response to the state’s multibillion dollar education cuts, they are eyeing every expenditure, from athletics to busing and even field trips.

Photo by Nathan Bernier/KUT News

Opponents of an Austin ISD’s in-district charter school are trying to wage a boycott campaign against the program. Members of an Eastside Memorial High School community group have organized as Pride of the Eastside and are trying to prevent South Texas-based IDEA Public Schools from operating college prep programs in two eastside schools.

Lake Travis Middle School sits right next to Lake Travis High School.

The Lake Travis school district has fired a custodial worker who said she saw a man with a gun at Lake Travis Middle School in early December, prompting a four-hour security lockdown of that campus, the neighboring high school, and an administrative building.

“Upon extensive review of the incident, District officials have concluded that there exists no evidence to substantiate the claim” of seeing a gunman, the district said in a letter sent to parents. The letter says the employee was fired at 4 p.m. Friday.

The lockdown on December 9 rattled nerves as law enforcement swarmed the scene, scouring for a suspect. Agents from the Travis County SWAT Team, several local police departments and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted several sweeps but never found a gunman.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

The Austin and Round Rock school districts have joined more than sixty school districts responsible for educating 1.5 million children in the fourth recent lawsuit against the state over its school finance system. With one-third of Texas’ student population, it’s the largest group of school districts ever to file suit against the state over how it funds education, according to plaintiff attorneys Thompson and Horton.

“The group represents rural, big town, small town, suburban, urban, fast growth, property poor, property wealthy, and average wealth districts,” the law firm wrote in a news release.

AISD trustees voted to join the lawsuit in October. The suit says the state has increased the academic requirements for school districts, but failed to provide funding to pay for it.

School funding in Texas is in turmoil. State lawmakers slashed more than $4 billion from education this school year — one of the largest cuts in state history — and more than 12,000 teachers and support staff have been laid off.

Academic programs and transportation have been cut to the bone. Promising reforms are on hold or on the chopping block. Next year, the cuts could go even deeper.

Rarely do Austin school board meetings get this heated. But a marathon session on Monday drew more than a hundred people, most of them disgruntled over the elected body’s push to bring a charter school into the district to operate college prep programs at two East Austin schools.

After a public input session in which opponents of the IDEA charter school plan lambasted board members for moving quickly to adopt the proposal, trustees held a lengthy debate and ultimately approved the plan in a 6-3 vote.

In case you missed the meeting or wish to relive it again, the AISD board has posted the full six hours on YouTube. Check out part one above. You can also watch part two and part three.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

We received a few emails from people asking to know specifically which members of the Austin school board voted for and against a proposal to establish an in-district charter school program at Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School.

We neglected to list the specific trustees in our story on the 6-3 vote to contract with South Texas-based IDEA Public Schools, so here’s how the vote panned out:

Screen capture of Twitter

A Twitter post by the president of the University of Texas at Austin College Republicans was “offensive and embarrassing,” according to the University of Texas dean of students Soncia Reagins-Lilly.

Cassandra Wright Tweeted early on Sunday morning: “My president’s black, he snorts a lot of crack. Holla. #2012 #Obama.” Her account has since been made private.

“We embrace free speech and encourage the open exchange of ideas,” Reagins-Lilly said in a news release. “But we also urge all students, alumni and friends to act respectfully and adhere to The University of Texas at Austin honor code which calls for ‘integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, and respect toward peers and community.’”

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

A divided Austin school board has approved a controversial proposal to bring a charter school into the district. AISD says it will help improve academic performance at some of its struggling Eastside schools. But opponents of the charter school project have vowed to keep fighting.

Immediately after last night’s vote, which came shortly before 1 a.m., some community members shouted “Shame!” at school board members.

The board voted 6 to 3 to sign a contract with IDEA Public Schools – a charter school operator from South Texas. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said the urgent need to improve low performing schools merited bold action.

Photo by Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

For Bill Powers, 2011 has been a year full of upheavals.

Certain issues were foreseeable for the president of the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s largest and arguably most prestigious public university. State lawmakers were heading into a legislative session with budget axes at the ready, and nationally there were questions about the value of higher education.

Then, in early February, when he should have been testifying at the Capitol about the university’s financial needs, Powers suffered a pulmonary embolism. He was in the hospital for a week.

It was the first struggle in a year marked by high-profile battles involving Powers — to some, the university’s very own Dumbledore; to others, a particularly large bee in the bonnet of higher education reformers.

Photo by Nathan Bernier, KUT News

So much community and media attention was focused last night on Austin ISD’s controversial proposal to outsource an East Austin college prep program to a South Texas charter school operator that we didn’t have time to tell you about other sweeping overhauls the school board approved for next year.

Here’s a recap of what the board approved.

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