By Anne Drabicky
To create a more equitable situation for its schools, Austin ISD announced in a recent community meeting that PTAs would no longer be able to fund positions, and that if campuses have a demonstrated staffing need, the district will meet it.
For the 2020–21 school year, PTAs at 11 Austin ISD elementaries funded 31 full- and part-time positions that included library clerks, tutors and a Spanish teacher. This decision ends that practice.
“We very much appreciate the support that PTAs provide and their engagement with our families. We highly encourage PTAs to continue to determine how to best support their campuses through the donations they raise to supplement the work of teachers and staff,” Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde said. “[But] It is the district’s responsibility to identify the need for teachers and staff at each campus in partnership with principals.”
"It is the district’s responsibility to identify the need for teachers and staff at each campus in partnership with principals." — Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde
Administration leaders explained the decision in a letter to principals May 3.
“We have begun work to intentionally and transparently pursue educational equity by ensuring equitable allocations of district resources, including staffing,” wrote Chief of Schools Anthony Mays, Chief of Human Capital Leslie Stephens and Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley.
“While it may be appealing to seek additional funds from community or school support organizations to maintain the status quo, that practice does not align with our district values,” they wrote. “We respectfully ask that schools have conversations with organizations regarding possible alternative supports on helping all students before making decisions that are not equitable and aligned with our core values.”
AISD is now analyzing data to identify the need for teachers and staff at each campus, using equity as the foundation for all decision-making. The district has picked up several positions that had been PTA-funded:
- Mathews (Project Lead-the-Way): for tech/innovation coach
- Davis (Innovation): for technology coach
- Baranoff (STEAM): for STEAM Makerspace lab/technology coordinator
- Summitt and Davis will receive dyslexia support
PTAs may provide enrichment positions after school.
PTAs Request Delay
Reaction from the community was immediate, with trustees receiving questions the same morning, and families and PTAs sending letters and emails to the superintendent requesting a slower approach.
The Gullett and Hill elementary school PTAs both wrote to Elizalde and requested that she hold off on the change.
“As a community, we commend your efforts in addressing a stopgap for a system which has been in dire need of attention,” the Gullett PTA officers wrote. “Gullett Elementary, like many other schools, has annual PTA fundraising events with thoughtfully designed financial goals. Our goals are created to address the unmet needs of our campus, with the PTA paid position salary as our biggest single budget item. By eliminating the PTA funded positions, we would be completely disregarding the donor intent of our parents and the community.”
Hill PTA officers agreed with the importance of educational equity as a goal.
“We recognize the challenges that AISD faces in meeting the needs of all schools and understand that a system where all students benefit is a very important goal to work toward,” they wrote. “With that said, we are greatly concerned about the pace and timeline of these decisions and the ramifications they will have upon our schools, teachers and communities.”
Elizalde acknowledged the complexity and interconnectedness of factors affecting equity throughout AISD, and remained firm in the district’s decision.
"If we waver, then we have no one to blame for the inequities," she said. “It’s never easy to operationalize equity, because it causes us to have to look at the entire system, but we have to have the ability to make those adjustments even when they’re not popular.
"If we waver, then we have no one to blame for the inequities." — Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde
"We are a public institution. We exist to serve the public. The minute we become enablers of inequities, we cease to be a public institution and become private,” she said.
Elizalde highlighted one benefit of the change—that PTAs will be returned to their highest and best use, which is parental involvement in and partnership with schools, not raising money.
National PTA, too, is clear on what a PTA is, and what it isn’t.
“PTAs are not an additional funding sources for goods, services and payroll for public schools. School funds should be supplied by governmental entities. PTAs advocate for the adequate funding of schools from governmental sources. They do not replace funds not supplied by governments,” according to guidance titled, Is Your PTA an ATM for Your School?
"PTAs are not an additional funding sources for goods, services and payroll for public schools. School funds should be supplied by governmental entities." — National PTA
In 2012, the Texas Civil Rights Project called PTA-funded positions “inequitable” and “vestiges of segregation” where the quality of education is predictable by geography.
“One reason for this inequitable and unfair situation is that AISD allows and supports the private subsidization of higher-income (or “higher-equity”) schools. … AISD allows this to happen, and winks its eye at it.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, “From its inception, the primary goal of the Title I grant program has been to provide extra resources to help high-poverty schools meet the greater challenges of educating disadvantaged students to reach the same high standards that are expected for all students.”
But that difference—between schools that receive Title I funding and schools that don’t—is often misunderstood by families and even campus staff.
Part of the motivation for PTA-funded positions, the TCRP report found, was the Title 1 Myth: “The mistaken belief exists among parents and administrators at wealthier, higher-equity schools that their schools are at a disadvantage because they do not receive Title 1 funds from the federal government. Therefore, they come to see private funds as a way to ‘level the playing field’ with the poorer schools that have Title 1 assistance.”
As one parent and teacher wrote to the district, “While my children’s schools and my own campus are considered wealthy, they do have many students with identified socioeconomic needs.
“At the same time, we don’t receive Title 1 funding that other schools do. Allowing the PTA to close the gap actually allows us to better serve our highest-risk learners.”
“It is simply not true,” stated the 2012 report. “There is no honest way to view private subsidization as ‘leveling the playing field.’ To the contrary, it does just the opposite.”
The challenges facing many students range from food scarcity to homelessness to a lack of transportation or Wi-Fi. Title I funding is meant to help schools provide—or at least aim for—a degree of equity among their students and those at schools with more wealthy families.
“The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 requires that school districts provide services to higher-poverty, Title I schools, from state and local funds, that are at least comparable to services in lower-poverty, non-Title I schools,” according to the DOE.
But the department goes on to explain a loophole that often upsets that balance:
Because comparability was defined in terms of “services” rather than actual school-level expenditures, the statute has long allowed school districts to demonstrate comparability among Title I and non-Title I schools through a variety of proxies for such expenditures, such as a district-wide salary schedule or student-instructional staff ratios.
Moreover, when districts do calculate expenditures per pupil, or instructional salaries per pupil, the current Title I statute specifically prohibits them from taking into account the higher salaries paid to more experienced teachers. Instead, districts typically use average teacher salaries in determining per-pupil expenditures, a practice that in some districts can overstate the resources allocated to high-poverty Title I schools compared to lower-poverty non-Title I schools.
This is because the district-wide average salary generally exceeds the salaries actually paid to the novice teachers who are often assigned in larger numbers to high-poverty schools, but is significantly less than the actual salaries received by the more experienced teachers who may be working in a district’s low-poverty schools.
District 3 Trustee Kevin Foster highlighted this during a community conversation with Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, or HABLA, on May 21.
“I’m of the opinion that when it came to the issue of this PTA funding, we can talk and talk and talk, [but] Austin is out of step with the state and the nation,” Foster said. “We know that good-hearted folk, providing funds in this way…it accelerates inequities because it perpetuates the ecosystem.”
Stephens, the district’s chief human capital officer, said that anyone who was in a PTA-funded, half-time position or greater will be offered the chance to go into the district’s priority pool for selection and may apply for other vacant positions.
She and other senior leaders, as well as trustees, have heard from the community about the great need to operationalize equity, she said .
“So we are taking a close look at that and, and we are not going to allow for outside entities to fund campus positions. It's almost like, for the 21–22 school year, we hit a reset button to try to apply equity and staffing,” she said. “And now if we don't even operationalize that, and we allow all of these other outside entities or support groups—while we greatly appreciate the support—but if we allow them to fund teachers, then we're right back where we were when we started and we did nothing.”