School closures would impact an already vulnerable black population in Austin

Photo by Patricia Glogowski

School closures are often justified with a string of hyphenated descriptors — like “under-utilized” or “under-enrolled” — each of which speaks to an immediate need for administrative action.

But no descriptor can quell the frustration of those expected to bear the brunt of a closed school, especially when it is inextricably tied to a legacy of racism.

This is the case in Austin, where nine of the 12 schools proposed for closure are expected to disproportionately impact black and Latino communities. As a demographer, I am particularly interested in the effect these closures will have on the city’s black residents, who are already experiencing steep declines in their respective population share.

In the mid-1990s, black residents made up approximately 15 percent of Austin’s inhabitants. Today, that percentage has nearly halved. In fact, the city demographer predicts the black population will constitute the lowest share among all minority groups in just a few decades.

That alone demonstrates the vulnerability of Austin’s remaining black residents to scenarios that involve displacement. Especially given the fact they are concentrated in East Austin, where most of the proposed closures are slated to occur.

This of course can have dramatic implications on black student enrollment.

In 1991, four years after the Austin Independent School District (AISD) ceased crosstown busing and reinstated de facto segregation, there were 13,000 black students enrolled in the district, comprising about 20% of the student body. Today, black students now account for 7% of all students, a 56% drop within a 30-year span.

What this essentially means is that declining enrollment has been evident among the district’s black students for decades. Unfortunately, AISD never responded to it.

In fact, the district’s most recent demographic report states that issues in under-enrollment across East Austin and other impacted areas were mostly attributed to the hyper-development of unaffordable housing, declining birth rates and the increased preference for charter schools.

Not only does this tell only half the story, but it also absolves AISD from any accountability.

According to a study conducted by Dr. Eric Tang, director for Asian American Studies and associate chair of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, the second-leading reason for black outmigration from East Austin was dissatisfaction with public schools. That dissatisfaction was mostly geared toward inequity and feelings that black children were being underserved. As a result, some of the residents opted for suburban cities to pursue better educational opportunities for their children.

Data provided by the Texas Education Agency corroborates this. The Pflugerville ISD, for instance, has undergone a 73% increase in black student enrollment since 2000. Simultaneously, the city has seen an 80% increase in its black population during the same time period.

Put plainly, if you are not paying attention to the impending trends of Austin’s black residents, you will never notice how impactful these closures really are.

After all, only 12% of students enrolled in the closing schools are black, compared to 17% white and 68% Latino. A cursory look at the numbers makes it appear as if black students will be less impacted than other groups, but proportions matter.

Nearly 130 of every 1,000 black students enrolled in AISD elementary or middle schools will be impacted by these closures. That is three times more than their white counterparts and almost 1.5 times more than Latino students.

Also consider the fact that there are fewer than 6,000 black students in the entire district. More than half of those students are in elementary and middle schools — and unlike other racial groups, the concentration of AISD’s black student population is solely situated east of the interstate.

Truthfully, the feelings of dissatisfaction noted in Tang’s study will likely persist, whether AISD acknowledges it or not. The reality is that school closures are virtually ineffective as a cost-saving strategy, or as a reformative solution to enhance student achievement. Unless the district can ensure and demonstrate that students will be integrated into higher performing schools, it is likely that inequity will not only continue to deter black enrollees but also contribute to the continual depopulation of East Austin’s black inhabitants.

Ultimately, these closures link to a turbulent past — and they add to an interminable game of displacement, where black bodies continue to serve as human Tetris blocks to be maneuvered arbitrarily in the name of so-called reform. How much longer before no blocks are left for Austin to move around?

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Rickey Lowe

Research Associate, Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin