Austin ISD closures: Four schools will shutter in 2020

Austin ISD closures

Austin ISD closures, four schools will shutter in the 2020-21 school year.

The Austin ISD board decided to close Sims Elementary, Metz Elementary, Pease Elementary, and Brooke Elementary.

The school board voted Nov. 18 in favor of the closures, with six members in the majority and three voting against.

AISD has been debating a school closure plan for months. The district released a proposed list of school closures in September. The list included 12 schools, but the community resisted the closures.

The pushback led to the district whittling down the closure list to just four campuses. During the Nov. 18 board meeting, parents and employees spoke out against the closures. 

About 80 people spoke out against the closure, including Stephanie Hawley, AISD’s equity officer.

“The map that you have of school closures is a map of what 21st-century racism looks like,” Hawley said. Hawley was attacking the closures because they will disproportionately affect low-income, black, and Latinx students.

Hawley had spent months analyzing how the closures would affect Austin’s historically underserved communities, only to have her report withheld from the board when it was time to vote on the proposal.

The lack of a publicly available equity study was cited by some of the community members as a reason to delay the closures.

Austin ISD closures may not be equitable

“People have had a lot of questions that revolve around equity — why this campus and why not that campus,” said  Roxanne Evans, a member of the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education. “Look[ing] at the entire plan through the lens of equity…would be really informative and very valuable for the community.”

Since the vote was cast, parents and other community members have been calling for the report’s release. 

Trustee Arati Singh said closing schools makes AISD look unstable and that turning Pease Elementary into a media and archives building is a “waste.”

“Closing black and brown schools even with the promise of larger modernized facilities to me is not the way,” said Singh. “I personally don’t think closing schools based on incomplete financials is being tough or courageous. It hurts our children.” 

This is not the first time AISD has tried to close down schools in the district. In 2011 and 2017, the district looked at closing 10 schools, but the plans were scrapped. In 2011, the district cut 1,000 jobs instead.

Texas special education reform still an uphill battle

Texas special eucation

By John Luedemann

As her daughter prepared to begin her freshman year of high school in Conroe ISD this year, Courtney Sandifer welcomed the news out of their annual Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting.

“They finally put back bell-to-bell, in-class assistance for her that hadn’t been in place since first grade,” she explained. 

Across the state, parents participate in ARD committees to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that specifies the special education services their children will receive. These committees are typically comprised of parents, administrators, teachers, evaluators, and others, including, in some instances, the student themselves. 

Sandifer has always considered herself lucky. She believes the “official diagnosis” of autism that her daughter received at age four resulted in access to services that other parents have struggled to obtain. 

Still, she says her daughter, who she describes as “high-functioning,” experienced a steady decline in services over the years.

“Every year, up to about fifth grade, she gradually lost services,” said Sandifer. “Then she started failing the STAAR test and had a very rough year emotionally. They never added back things like speech or occupational therapy, but they finally added back more in-class aid this year.”

The restoration of services Sandifer and her daughter experienced coincides with a statewide effort to address critical deficiencies in Texas’ special education services. 

Three years ago, reporting by the Houston Chronicle revealed an arbitrary cap was limiting access to the services for tens of thousands of students. In 2015, just 8.5 percent of public school students in Texas were receiving special education, compared with a national average of 13 percent. 

A subsequent investigation by the U.S. Department of Education determined that Texas violated federal laws requiring schools to serve all students with disabilities.

According to a spokesperson from the Texas Education Agency, a strategic plan initiated in April of last year is in place to make systemic improvements. 

“Additionally, TEA has hired a significant number of full-time equivalents to supervise how districts and charters implement special education services. We are currently collecting information on the initial year of implementation to demonstrate the successes and are also continuing work that is part of the strategic plan,” she said. 

Advocates agree that the elimination of the cap and involvement of the federal government as had a positive impact. 

“TEA has established a list of promises to fulfill the corrective action and has been hard at work developing content to meet those promises,” said Robbie Cooper of Decoding Dyslexia Texas. “I have seen many attempts, and there are many capable people at the agency working on directives set by the commissioner.”

Steve Aleman, an attorney and policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas, also noted that the data on special education is starting to shift in the right direction.

“The trend line for our identification rate in the state has stopped declining, and it has modestly turned upward in the last few school years, so that’s a positive,” he said. “And also, many more parents are coming forward, asking that their students be evaluated for special education services.”

However, Cooper and Aleman both remain concerned about the pace of improvements and see many issues that need attention.

“They identified, in that strategic plan, five key areas of activities. And I think you can only really say that one of them has been totally accomplished. Under the other four strands, it seems as if things are still moving very slowly,” said Aleman.

In fact, a letter sent by TEA to federal officials in May estimated the state would not be able to provide all eligible special education students with services before June of 2020.

“Parents are still facing misguided interpretations of federal law, purposefully worded to keep them from fully understanding their rights to seek services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” added Cooper.  

She asserts that third-party training, from law firms pushing outdated approaches and prioritizing cost-savings, is a significant contributor to the continuing problems. School districts that instead rely on input from parents and conduct a student-focused review of their practices are leading the way, according to Cooper.

“Decoding Dyslexia tries to empower parents with accurate info and support their efforts to create positive change in their districts,” she explained. “We see that happening best when parents and schools work together to change, and cut out the dysfunction that is still ingrained in some of the bad practices of the past.”

Her organization is also partnering with several education organizations in their effort to promote substantial changes. 

“We are working on initiatives with Microsoft, Made By Dyslexia, National Center for Improving Literacy and others committed to bringing solutions of evidence-based best practices to our public schools, and we encourage districts and charters to reach out to us,” said Cooper. “We can help them find better ways that are more effective than what is currently happening.”

Unfortunately, the continuing success that Cooper, Aleman, and others are pursuing will come too late for parents like Debbie Burr. She decided to move her daughter, Faythe, from a Houston ISD pre-school program to a private school in 2016. 

Burr credits the state’s Early Childhood Intervention program with making sure that the public pre-school program accommodated Faythe’s autism appropriately.

“They did everything to help me transition into the public school,” she recalled. “I have a feeling if I had done that on my own, there definitely would have been some issues. 

But, despite her initial experience, Burr began to lose confidence that the school could continue to provide the level of service her daughter would require. 

“When she was getting close to kindergarten, they started putting her into the regular classroom to see how she would do,” said Burr. “In addition, we had some issues where she wandered off, and one time got on the wrong bus, and it was very traumatic, so we decided we didn’t want to continue services there.”

Frustrations with the process also drove Karina Pichardo to move her family from Tomball ISD to Fort Bend ISD, in search of the accommodations she believed were appropriate for her daughter’s Down syndrome. 

“We believe special education is a service, not a place,” said Pichardo. “And, what the district proposed was to remove my daughter from general education and place her in the special education classroom for three hours a day in kindergarten, and then increased it to four hours in first grade.”

Despite a year-long fight for the inclusive approach they felt was necessary, the Pichardos lost their appeal and chose to relocate instead. Her daughter, now nine, spends two hours in special education classes for math and reading, and the rest of the day in general education. 

“It continues to be a fight. We even considered moving to Wisconsin. Imagine that?” she added.  “And sometimes when we’re still struggling here, we wonder if we should have moved two years ago. You always have to be pushing because just by itself, it’s not going to happen.”

The struggle experienced by the Pichardo family is not unfamiliar to Aleman, who considers the current state funding mechanism for special education as antiquated and outdated. Since funding is determined by the time spent in a special education classroom, rather than the unique needs of the child, it has added to the reluctance that parents face from school districts when seeking more inclusion in general education classes.

“The system has been in place for several decades now without any review until this legislative session,” said Aleman. 

Aleman described House Bill 3, a school finance bill passed in 2019, as making a modest, short-term tweak to the system that added additional funding for school districts. Yet he is optimistic that further changes are on the horizon. HB 3 also created a study committee to explore more substantial improvements to special education funding in Texas.

Aleman, one of the 22 members of the Special Education Allotment Advisory Committee, said he expects the group to hold its first meeting before the end of the year, with an ambitious goal of presenting a report of their suggestions by May of 2020. 

“Fundamentally, we still have challenges on making sure that everyone who needs specialized services is receiving them, and that those services are quality and properly delivered,” he said. 

Success demands a comprehensive approach, says Aleman. He sees room for improvement across educational institutions. Even universities have a role to play, he explained, in terms of preparing and recruiting future educators and service providers to enter special education fields that require advanced degrees and professional certification.

“You know, everyone needs to be working towards the same goal,” he said. “I think everyone, on the surface, does seem to be wanting to do the right thing, but we just need to have a more concerted and coordinated effort to get there. 

For Courtney Sandifer, she considers the reintroduction of services for her daughter a massive win with long-term impact.  

“I’m feeling pretty happy that she may develop better study skills because of it,” she said. “That alone could alter her life and make college a stronger possibility than we thought.” 

She hopes improvements to the system will place the emphasis where she, and parents like her, believe it belongs—on the student. 

“I think the educational system needs to adapt to fit more types of learners, not try to make the kids adapt to the system. The fight should not be about how to fit your square kid into the round hole of the educational environment. It should be about how to help your square kid be the best square kid he or she can be.”

Texas Democrats 2020 want to put the state courts in play

Texas Democrats 2020


Amy Clark Meachum, a longtime district judge in Travis County, kicks off her campaign for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court in Austin on Oct. 29, 2019.
Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

BY EMMA PLATOFF

For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.

As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who himself won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.

Now, as the Texas Democrats 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have over the past two decades plus proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.

“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”

In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.

It’s often easier to find Democrats interested in running for the top jobs — U.S. Senate, governor. But the depth of the bench for non-marquee statewide races, like the state’s two high courts and the Railroad Commission, is a measure of how high Democratic hopes have soared ahead of the Texas Democrats 2020 election.

The judicial candidates still have to earn their spots on the ballot by gathering dozens of signatures in each of the state’s 14 appellate judicial districts. But assuming all do — most said in interviews that they are close to meeting the threshold, and the party has been helping — all but one primary race for the state’s high courts will be contested.

Democrats have not run a contested primary for the state’s high courts since 2008. As recently as last year, Democrats failed to even field a candidate in one race for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

But “2020 is going to be the year when the blue tide overtakes the state,” said Chrysta Castañeda, a Democratic Dallas attorney seeking a seat on the Railroad Commission. “Our numbers are increasing. They were phenomenal in 2018, even over 2016 — all the movement is in that direction.”

The party is hoping to replicate a 2018 election cycle during which modest Democratic gains had outsized impacts on the judiciary. Democrats lost races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, but they won majorities on 7 of the state’s 14 appeals courts; before the election, Democrats held seats on just 3 of those courts.

Their stars, the theory goes, have aligned again: a controversial Republican president at the top of the ticket bringing national attention (and dollars) to the state; an outright offensive to seize control of the Texas House; and helpful flukes of timing on the courts themselves. This year, due to personnel shifts, four seats are up for election on the Texas Supreme Court instead of the usual three. If Texas Democrats 2020 were to sweep the races, the nine-member court — entirely Republican for more than two decades — would see a 5–4 party split. If a Democrat wins a seat on the Railroad Commission, it would be the first time the three-member governing board has included a Democrat since 1995.

“You saw what happened in 2018 — the numbers of people that had never voted before that came out to vote was outstanding,” said Justice Gisela Triana of the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. Triana, a longtime judge in Travis County who was among the Democrats who overtook the state’s urban appellate courts last year, is running this year for Texas Supreme Court. “Everything shows that’s what’s going to happen in 2020. I’d like to feel like I’m doing my part in it.”

Texas Democrats 2020 draw their hope from the tight margin between O’Rourke and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the top of the 2018 ballot. But Republicans, equally bullish on next year’s statewide ticket, would prefer to focus on another figure: In 2018, Democratic candidates for the high courts lost to Republicans by about 7 percentage points on average, a relatively consistent number across all the races that included candidates from both major parties.

“Republican judges in Texas have built a long and impressive track record of resisting the urge to legislate from the bench, and they are appropriately rewarded for that history by support from Texas voters,” said James Dickey, chairman of the state GOP. He added that “a significant portion” of party fundraising and operation efforts will be devoted to “ensuring that every Texan continues to benefit from a free and fair application of the rule of law.”

Judicial candidates are unlikely to be their party’s rock stars. They run low-information races, and are the first to acknowledge that their campaigns are equal parts political engagement and civic education: Yes, we do elect our judges in Texas; Yes, the Court of Criminal Appeals is important, too; No, I won’t tell you how I’ll rule on abortion cases.

Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?

Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”

That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees: “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”

The biggest ripple effects, of course, will come from the very top of the ticket: the Texas Democrats 2020 who take on President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Jerry Zimmerer, a justice elected last year to the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals, acknowledged that his race for Texas Supreme Court “is probably going to be determined by the top of the ticket.”

“My goal was and continues to be to make sure that the Democrats have good quality candidates representing the party,” he said.

Dickey said he’s confident that Trump will carry the state — but even if he doesn’t, it’s not unusual for down-ballot candidates to outperform the top of the ticket. Most Republican judges on the ticket will be incumbents who have the advantage of having served, and in many cases, run, before.

But that hasn’t deterred candidates like Amy Clark Meachum, a longtime district judge in Travis County who hopes to defeat Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, a 30-year veteran of the Texas Supreme Court. If she wins, Meachum would be making history in more ways than one: She’d be the first female chief justice ever elected to the court.

Last month, she told supporters at a kickoff event at a North Austin restaurant that she’s gotten used to the question, “Can you win?”

“Yes!” roared back a room of optimistic Austin Democrats, gathered with their families on a rainy Tuesday to cheer on her campaign over beers, queso and the occasional chocolate milk. “Yes, you can!”

“Yes! Yes is the answer to that question,” Meachum agreed. “Yes, we can win. Even the skeptics will tell you: This is the best chance the Democratic party has had in 25 years.”