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School monopoly is a drag on downtowns

By   /   January 25, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 8 of 7 in the series National School Choice Week
Photo by Kenric Ward

AGING FACADE: San Antonio Independent School District is headquartered in a historic Southtown schoolhouse – an aging monument to an education monopoly.

If schools sell real estate, downtown San Antonio is dirt poor and getting fleeced.

Inner-city homeowners and businesses pay half their total property tax bill to the San Antonio Independent School District, with little to show for it.

While the 53,700-student school system receives a “Met Standards” rating from the Texas Education Agency, the outcomes are dreadful:

  • Just 15.5 percent of students passed at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam (versus 51.3 percent statewide).
  • The average SAT score is 1201 (1417 statewide).
  • Only 39 percent of SAISD graduates are deemed college-ready in English and math (54 percent statewide).
  • The four-year graduation rate for whites is 69.8 percent (93 percent statewide). The overall rate of 80.8 is eight points below the Texas average.

Poor district? Think again. SAISD teachers earn bigger salaries across the board. Starting pay of $49,424 is $5,000 over the state average.

With a $550 million budget, SAISD expenditures work out to $10,185 per pupil — roughly double any charter school allocation in Texas.

San Antonio’s public schools are not alone in their dysfunction, says Peggy Venable, policy and legislative director at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation of Texas.

“Urban ISDs are the weakest link in the education system. Homebuyers are accustomed to hearing ‘this is in a great school district’ even when it is not. Even the most disingenuous real estate agent can’t say that about most inner-city schools,” Venable said.

“Under the current monopoly-only approach, (public schools) continue to fail.”

Next door, the city Alamo Heights enjoys a bustling real-estate market and high-performing schools. The Heights is home to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, the Legislature’s most powerful opponent of school-choice reforms.

Families in downtown San Antonio don’t get Alamo Heights schools. They get subpar campuses at a premium price, along with SAISD’s $71 million annual debt load.

For a quality K-12 education, parents double down to put their children in private schools while continuing to pay taxes for scholastic services they do not or cannot use.

San Antonio Independent School District photo

TURNAROUND? San Antonio school superintendent Pedro Martinez plans to boost college-prep curriculum.

The Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a girls-only middle school on the city’s northwest side, is the district’s top academic performer. It has turned away thousands of qualified applicants.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez pledges to build two “gifted academies,” along with magnet programs offering up to 45 college credits at each high school.

Meanwhile, a high churn of teachers continues to sap the district at large. SAISD has paid out millions of dollars in contract buyouts to Martinez’s predecessors.

“Until we rein in the out-of-control spending of public school districts, we’re never going to see the end to confiscatory property taxes in Texas,” said Terri Hall, president of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

Hall and others believe San Antonio’s downtown revitalization efforts will be deflated as long as high-achieving parents are scared off by low-performing schools.

Venable says school choice — through education savings accounts — are the answer.

“When education bureaucrats start seeing students and parents as their clients and customers, schools will improve,” she predicts. “Real estate should not be tied to the school district. When ZIP codes indicate that’s where the mail is delivered, not a number used to assign kids to schools, everybody wins.”

 SCHOOL CHOICE WEEK: Events in Texas through January

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]. @Kenricward

Part of 7 in the series National School Choice Week

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Kenric Ward is the San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org. A California native and veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 and previously reported from Virginia. Kenric can be reached at [email protected]