AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers at UT Austin have compiled numbers that show charter school enrollment in Austin has ballooned in recent years.

The numbers also highlight that the percentages of Black and Hispanic students at Austin’s charter schools are greater than the percentages of Black and Hispanic students at Austin’s traditional public schools.

These numbers were pulled together in a brief by the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis (IUPRA) at UT’s College of Liberal Arts Published January 24. These numbers seemed especially relevant to the researchers involved in light of Austin Independent School District’s Board of Trustees voted in November to close four schools: Metz, Pease, Sims, and Brooke elementary schools at the end of the school year.

This IUPRA brief analyzed different educational and population data sets. In the future, the researchers involved hope to use this analysis to answer questions like:

“With AISD in the midst of closing four predominantly Black and Hispanic schools, how will these closures impact charter school enrollment?”

Ricardo Lowe, a Research Associate at IUPRA, explained that when these school closures were announced, IUPRA began trying to understand how those closures would affect the Black and Hispanic communities in East Austin.

“In the process of doing that, we ended up sifting through the data and recognizing that the enrollment declines in the district were corresponding with increased charter school enrollment,” Lowe said.

Percent of Students Enrolled in Traditional Public Schools Versus Charter Schools in Austin, 2006-2018. Data compiled by Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis

Growth of charter schools in Austin

The numbers in the report highlight how charter school enrollment in Austin has ballooned over the past decade.

“It’s not that Austin has the most charter schools, but the interesting thing is, within the last 10 years, the number of students attending charters jumped up at a higher rate than other major cities in Texas,” Lowe said.

Using data from the Texas Education Agency, the researchers highlighted that Austin saw a nearly 800% change in enrollment in charter schools between 2008 and 2018, a greater percent change than San Antonio, Dallas, or Houston saw over that period of time.

Percent Change Difference of Charter Students Enrolled in the Four Major Cities of Texas, 2008 and 2018. Data from Texas Education Agency, compiled by the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.

When you look at the numbers in terms of race and ethnicity, other interesting trends appear.

Among Black students, the percentage of Black students enrolled in both Austin charter schools and AISD public schools has been declining over the past 10 years. But the number of black enrollees at Austin charter schools continues to gradually increase, though not quite as fast as the percentage of Hispanic enrollees at Austin charter schools has increased.

Percentage of Black Students Enrolled 2007-2018 in Austin Data compiled by the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.

Citing U.S. Census data, the researchers explained that the percentage of Black children in Austin between the ages of 5 and 17 declined by 18% between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses.

The researchers also say over that same period of time, the percentage of Black school-aged children in surrounding cities including Hutto, Manor, Pflugerville, and Round Rock increased substantially.

“We know gentrification-induced displacement is happening in East Austin, and we can see that in children,” Lowe said.

The IURPA report surmised.

“This indicates Black families are rapidly suburbanizing — and those who remain in Austin are gradually enrolling their children into local charter schools.” 

The percentage of Black students enrolled in Austin charter schools in 2017 was around 10%, a higher percentage than the percent of Black students enrolled in AISD schools.

Lowe explained that you might expect the percentage of Black students in charter schools to decline with the overall decline of the young, Black population in Austin, but the numbers don’t seem to be trending that way.

Percentage of Hispanic Students Enrolled 2007-2018 in Austin Data compiled by the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.

Austin’s young, Hispanic population is continuing to grow.

IURPA cited Census Bureau numbers between 2000 and 2010 which showed there was a 44% increase of Hispanic children between the ages of 5 and 17 in Austin. However, the researchers say that AISD’s Hispanic enrollment has been declining since 2012.

“Hispanic students continue to have a strong presence in the city despite their decline in AISD schools,” the researchers said, noting that families may be opting for charter schools instead.

The percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in Austin charter schools was less than 30% in 2007 and around 70% in 2018.

“For AISD to be experiencing a decline in [Hispanic] student body over a certain period of time is interesting because if the students aren’t there, where are they being educated at?” Lowe wondered. “We have this inclination that there’s something that the charters are providing that AISD is not providing them.”

Percentage of White Students Enrolled 2007-2018 in Austin Data compiled by the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.
Percentage of Asian Students Enrolled 2007-2018 in Austin Data compiled by the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis.

Impact on Austin ISD

In a report released earlier this month, Austin ISD said it lost $105 million to charter schools this year, a number that’s only expected to grow.

Over the past seven years it’s lost $562 million to charter schools.

The district says 16,000 students zoned for AISD currently attend charter schools instead, a number that’s expected in increase to 24,100 by the 2026-27 school year.

“Maintaining our enrollment and growing our enrollment is something that we look at constantly,” AISD Communication and Engagement Executive Director Reyne Telles said.

Telles said that district is working to get families back, and last year saw it’s first enrollment increase after six years of declines.

Texas Public Charter School Association CEO Starlee Coleman said a shift in the way parents are thinking is helping fuel the switch.

“Parents today have an expectation of options and charter schools are one of the options that they have an expectation that they will be able to choose from,” Coleman said.

“Not surprising”

For many in the world of educational policy, the numbers spelled out in IURPA’s brief don’t come as a shock.

“We saw that this weekend at the Austin School Fair, many families came in and said, ‘Where are the charter schools?” explained Randan Steinhauser founder of the Texas School Choice Coalition, speaking about a fair held in Austin this past weekend to show parents different educational options available in the area. “[Charter schools] are tuition-free, the more they learn about charter schools the more demand is growing.”

Steinhauser said this analysis from IUPRA is, “not surprising.”

“This [brief] emphasized what we’ve said all along which is that school choice is another way for these minorities to have another option,” she said.

Steinhauser explained that many charter school parents she talks to are drawn to the schools because they believe their children will have an extra focus on college and career readiness.

Paul Saldaña, a former AISD trustee who has remained vocal in Austin’s conversations about education and equity, explained that he also found the IUPRA brief, ” not surprising.”

“I think that both for the Hispanic and African American community, it’s not anything new,” Saldaña continued.

He said that even prior to his time on the board, which ended in 2017, “there was never any strategic plan to mitigate the loss of AISD students to charter schools. “

Saldaña described Austin’s charter schools as being “aggressive and strategic” in engaging families, meeting them in churches, and in grocery stores.

He added that many charter schools offer additional family support and services after school, which is appealing for parents who may need to be work later hours.

“Some of us feel that AISD has handed over our poor, economically disadvantaged families to the charter schools which is why they are now consolidating and closing the schools,” Saldaña said.

AISD sent KXAN a statement Tuesday in response to the data highlighted in the IUPRA brief:

From housing costs to childcare, there is no doubt that affordability is a factor that families grapple within Austin. Within that context, and with increased competition, Austin ISD still believes we offer the best choice for families in Central Texas. Outstanding academic offerings like Early College High School, fine arts, and dual-language bring strong programming options to all Austin ISD families. We put families first with free breakfast and lunch for all students at 82 schools. The district is also introducing expanded school hours to ensure students have safe, engaging and reliable care before and after school. “

Charter school growth in Texas

The IUPRA researchers note an increasing tension in the state between school choice supporters and those who fear charter schools take money or resources from traditional school districts.

The researchers pointed out that Texas is the second-largest authorizer of charter schools in the nation behind California.

The researchers say, “this leap in charter enrollment is predominantly attributed to an increased number of Black and Hispanic enrollees, indicating an over-representation in the charter student body statewide.”

In 1995, the Texas Legislature authorized the establishment of open-enrollment charter schools across the state.

Data from TEA in the 2018 to 2019 school year showed that 316, 869 students attended open-enrollment charter schools in Texas, accounting for 5.8% of the total Texas public school population. By comparison, in the 1996 to 1997 school year, only 0.1% of the state’s public school enrollment was at charter schools.

According to those TEA numbers, Hispanic students made up 61.5% of the total population of open-enrollment charter schools in Texas, African American students made up 18%, White students made up 13.7%, and Asian students made up 4.5%.

Those TEA numbers also showed that nearly 70% of the students at open-enrollment charter schools in Texas were identified as economically disadvantaged.

Texas Education Agency Enrollment data 2018-2019.

A reason for the trends?

“There are so many different reasons as to why someone would want to go to a charter school,” Lowe explained. “We know charters do a lot of advertising, and a lot of marketing — traditional public schools do not have the capacity to do that.”

Lowe said, his team doesn’t have the data yet to show why people are making these decisions to attend charter schools in Austin.

The researchers noted that the State of Texas incentivizing charter schools may contribute to some of the trends they’re seeing, but they hope to do more research to determine what kind of impact the state incentivization may be having.

They are hoping to do additional research to survey Black and Hispanic families in Austin to determine why they are making these decisions about where their kids should attend school.