School Board Case Studies

The Austin Independent School District Case Study

The Austin Independent School District (AISD) has taken significant steps over the past several years to boost student achievement through results-driven policies, including performance-based teacher pay and a strategic plan tied to student performance. But the district continues to struggle with a persistent achievement gap between white and minority students, and currently faces financial challenges caused by state budget cuts. In recent years, a partnership between the Austin Chamber of Commerce and AISD has helped drive reform, and the expertise offered by business leaders can help the district respond to new and emerging challenges. This partnership illustrates how third-party support and pressure can create stability and consensus in fractured and politicized school board environments.

The Austin school board has nine members, seven of whom represent geographic districts, and two elected at large. Board members are elected to staggered, four-year terms in nonpartisan elections held every two years—most recently in May 2010. Because municipal elections in Austin—including school board, mayor, and city council—are held “off cycle,” apart from other federal or state elections, they receive relatively little attention and turnout is weak, especially among low-income voters and districts. Fewer than 9,500 people—just 2.5 percent of registered voters—voted in the most recent election. Low voter turnout enables motivated and well-organized groups and special interests, representing both reform ideas and the status quo, to have an outsize influence on school board elections.

Sandy Kress, a leader in national and Texas education reforms and former president of the board of trustees of the Dallas public schools, says that 15 years ago the Austin Board of Trustees was overly political and dysfunctional, but it has since become “more professional, more thoughtful, and more collaborative.” These shifts are due in part to a series of board leaders open to accountability-driven reforms, beginning with Ingrid Taylor, who was elected to the board in 2000, and extending to the current president, Mark Williams.

Despite this progress, the board continues to lack a real sense of urgency for reform, owing largely to structural features. AISD covers a jurisdiction of 230 square miles, and there is a sharp geographic divide in Austin between communities that are well served by the public school system and those that are not. Because board members are elected from geographic constituencies, board membership reflects this divide. Board members from constituencies with higher performing schools see less urgency for reform than those representing lower-performing neighborhoods. Voters in the low-income and immigrant communities on the east side of the city, where more schools are struggling, tend to be less civically engaged, and there has been little effort to organize low-income parents in Austin, creating little pressure for change.

In this climate, where school board members feel little pressure for reform or improvement, the Austin Chamber of Commerce has emerged as an important external advocate for accountability-driven education reform. The chamber, which includes 2,500 business enterprises, civic groups, and individuals, has played a key role in shaping and supporting reform initiatives in Austin. 

The district worked with both the chamber and Education Austin, the district’s teachers’ union, to develop a performance-based teacher compensation initiative, REACH. First piloted in the 2007–08 school year, REACH awards bonuses to teachers and other school employees for serving as mentors to novice educators, pursuing national board certification, meeting teacher-determined student performance goals, and for significant student gains on the Texas standardized test. To date, Austin educators have received more than $10 million in additional compensation thanks to REACH.

The chamber assembled a task force of human resource and compensation experts from Austin-area companies to advise the designers of the performance-based compensation. But its most important contribution was publicly supporting a property tax increase for education, passed in 2008, which allocated one penny per $100 valuation to REACH. By providing a sustainable source of funding for REACH, the property tax hike enable AISD to secure a $62.3 million federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant—the largest awarded under this program—to expand REACH from 19 to 43 campuses, more than a third of all AISD schools.

The Austin chamber has consistently used data to make the case for reform in Austin, and is viewed as a source of high-quality, transparent information about the performance of Austin schools. Austin superintendent Meria Carstarphen says, “There’s a sharing of information that wouldn’t happen on its own.… When I came in, the group that had the highest quality information was the chamber. The trend data they have, and using it to help target schools that were off track, was extremely valuable.”

The chamber’s education task force publishes an annual report tracking Austin’s progress on key indicators, including college readiness and enrollment. And as part of its 2004 Opportunity Austin initiative, the chamber compiled data about college and financial aid applications from students in AISD and other local districts, and released biweekly progress reports ranking individual schools. It also worked with AISD to create a performance pay system for college enrollment managers.

The chamber has also pushed the Austin Board of Trustees to become more data- and accountability-driven. In 2008 the chamber threatened to withhold support for the board’s tax rate election unless the district developed performance-driven end-of-year targets as part of its strategic plan. Once those metrics were in place, the chamber provided radio ads, yard signs, and opinion pieces to support the initiative.

These examples show how external business reform groups can add value by serving as “critical friends” to elected school boards. Drew Scheberle, the chamber’s senior vice president of education/talent development, and other business leaders meet frequently with board members over breakfast or lunch to strategize and share ideas. School board president Mark Williams meets periodically with Gene Austin, head of the chamber’s education task force.

Williams, a former Dell executive, says that the chamber’s credibility with district leaders makes local business an effective partner. “You have to have a relationship with the governance of the district,” he said. “Having someone like Drew at the chamber whose job it is to be aware and in tune with what we are doing—that’s critical.” These relationships with school board and district leaders enable the chamber to use both broad public advocacy and direct individual lobbying to advance reforms.

The collaboration between the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Austin school board is a good example of effective business engagement to drive reform forward. The Austin chamber has a strong interest in securing the economic growth of the region through quality education, and the board of trustees can continue to benefit from the chamber’s help in addressing challenges, particularly around financial issues. 

In February 2011, the board of trustees declared the district in a state of financial exigency, allowing the elimination of more than 1,100 jobs, including teachers and other contract positions. In light of these ongoing fiscal troubles, the chamber’s ability to assist with data collection and analysis can help the board manage its resources more strategically and improve its analytic capacity.

Over the past decade, the Austin chamber has served as a voice for the larger Austin community in challenging school board complacency. But it is equally important to raise awareness and urgency for reform among other key stakeholders, including parents and community leaders—particularly in low-income communities. In June, the Texas State Legislature approved a bill giving deployed U.S. troops more time to return primary ballots, which may cause Austin to move its municipal and school board elections to November, coinciding with state and federal races. This change could boost turnout considerably, changing the dynamics of school board elections and creating new opportunities for advocacy by both the chamber and other reform-oriented groups.

The chamber’s credibility in Austin can also provide political cover for board members when they make difficult decisions. The Austin school board hires the superintendent. When Superintendent Pat Forgione announced that he would retire in 2009, the board faced significant political pressure to replace him with a superintendent who reflected the district’s growing Hispanic demographic. But with the chamber providing political cover, the board of trustees identified Carstarphen, an African American woman who fit the district’s vision for accountability. “The board was able to take responsibility for it,” says Scheberle. “They got the best candidate for what they were seeking.”

While Austin is still far from producing high-quality educational outcomes for all students, its example shows that empowered external partners can help drive school boards that otherwise have few incentives for reform to take stronger actions.