- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—The percentage of students from low-income families in Austin and many of its surrounding school districts has been shrinking since 2011 and took a steeper dive last school year, a change that the experts tracking rapid growth in Central Texas can’t quite explain.

The percentage of poor schoolchildren in the Austin district — based on federal standards that determine who qualifies for free or reduced-cost lunch or receives other public assistance — has dropped from 64 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 59.7 percent in 2014-15. Other districts that had at least two percentage-point drops during that five-year period include Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville, Georgetown, Bastrop, Manor, Hutto and Dripping Springs. Hays, Lake Travis and Eanes also saw a slight decline in their low-income student populations at some point during that five-year period.

The pattern raises questions as to whether the poorest families in Central Texas are slowly climbing out of poverty after the recession, moving even farther out into Austin’s suburbs where housing is cheaper or pulling more of their children out of the public schools. Those who study demographic changes here aren’t sure.

For years, the experts chalked up the dropping number of low-income Austin students to poor families being priced out of the city and moving to the neighboring communities. As the percentage of poor students in Austin dropped a point or two each year, suburban districts such as Pflugerville reported increases. But the past school year, the Pflugerville district saw a 2.1 percent decline in low-income students, the first substantial decline since 2010 —a change that echoes declines in other suburban districts that border Austin.

“It’s a little bit of a head scratcher,” said Beth Wilson, the Austin district’s assistant director of planning, who studies the school demographic trends. “We know the cost of living in Austin is getting more challenging for families. Where they choose to locate their families, that I don’t know.

“I think they’re fleeing further. I don’t have any data that backs that up. Affordable Central (Texas) has bloated, and now there’s a greater area that is unaffordable.”

Nearly 47 percent of the 3,100 or so students who left the Austin district after the 2013-14 school year went to neighboring districts, but Austin school officials didn’t track the socioeconomic status of those who left.

There are still a few Central Texas school districts that have steady percentages or increasing numbers of poor students. Del Valle has nearly 88.5 percent low-income students, a 3-percentage-point jump over the previous year. San Marcos has remained flat for the past three years at 71 percent.

Statewide, the percentage of low-income students grew by nearly 6 percentage points between 2004 and 2011 to 60.4 percent but then flattened before dipping 1.5 percentage points in 2014-15 to 58.7 percent. Many Central Texas districts saw gradual increases in the number of poor students through 2010.

In Austin, there are still wide swaths of the district where nearly all the students are considered poor.

Those low-income families are seeing their expenses rise with the real estate market, causing experts to doubt that the drop in student poverty means thousands of families suddenly have more money and resources. The taxable value of the average home in the Austin district rose to $307,194 this year.

“People are having to pay larger percentages of their income to housing,” said Ryan Robinson, city of Austin demographer. “Their quality of life is being affected as everything is more expensive as they have managed to stay inside the city. You’re probably needing to make extreme sacrifices to do that.”

The rapid growth among area charter schools may also be a factor in the declining poverty rates of school districts. Most charter schools in Central Texas primarily serve low-income students. More than half of Austin’s charter schools are located east of Interstate 35, in some of the poorest areas of the city and near some traditional public schools that have a history of low performance. Last year, only one charter school existed west of MoPac Boulevard, where there are affluent neighborhoods. Enrollment in Austin charter schools reached more than 14,200 students in 2014-15, more than quadrupling since the 2006-07 school year.

Of the Austin district students who were enrolled in 2013-14 but didn’t return in 2014-15, one-quarter, or 1,680, left for charters.

In at least some local school districts, the number of poor students appears to have leveled, and an increasing number of students from more affluent families have been added to enrollment, driving down the percentage of poor children in the schools, according to the Austin-based E3 Alliance, a nonprofit collaboration of businesses and community leaders who research education trends.

“It’s surprising that overall the number of reduced- and free-lunch students has flattened out,” said Susan Dawson, executive director of E3 Alliance. “Does that mean we’re seeing a true reversal in trends since for years we saw the student poverty growing at a significant rate? I wish I knew. I think it’s something to keep watching for sure.”

Dawson said that for years it was a “real wake-up call” to communities when she presented them data showing the rapid growth of low-income students in the region, and she hopes efforts to give low-income people more access to employment, housing and education are taking hold. “If we’ve really turned around our trends, it’s huge for our region.”

Others point to a rebounding economy after a 7.8 percent unemployment rate at the height of the recession in July 2009, compared to the jobless rate plummeting to 4.2 percent in June.

Drew Scheberle, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president of education and talent development, wasn’t surprised by the drop in student poverty in area districts, a statistic he tracks. He pointed to 12,000 unemployed people who got jobs between March 2014 and March 2015, as well as people moving into higher-paying jobs. The addition of those jobs, coupled with better pay, may further push down the student poverty rate when it is measured again this fall.

Wilson said it’s not clear whether the past few years represent a blip or a pattern that is growing more pronounced, but it’s something she and other school districts will be watching closely.

“This is the happening now,” Wilson said. “There’s not a lot of, ‘Is this an anomaly?’ I think it is a trend, but that’s just me thinking.”

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(c)2015 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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