More than 50 readers posted comments last week after reading “Failure to Consolidate Hurts San Antonio’s Public Education Outcomes,” a reflection, on the one hand, of strong reader interest in education issues and, on the other hand, the difference of opinion out there about how to deal with Bexar County’s lowest-performing schools districts.

The good news: People do care about our public schools, and with the 2019 Texas Legislature budgeting with greater resources than have been available in some years, the prospects for improved funding are real. Raise Your Hand Texas, the Austin-based public education advocacy nonprofit, has published a five-point guide to addressing public school financing in this legislative session.

Making sure the funds meant for public education go to public education is vital, but as the Raise Your Hand Texas video demonstrates, legislators have been diverting billions of dollars in education funds for years.

To clarify what I wrote last week, I do not favor a single, countywide school district serving 323,000-plus students. Moving from 15 school districts to one in Bexar County would be like sending astronauts to Mars when we had yet to reach the moon. We’d never get there. Such consolidation has been studied before, and the economic costs are questionable.

More than economics, however, are at play. Breaking the cycle of multigenerational poverty by offering inner-city, mostly minority students a fair shot at a good education is the real issue. That’s why legislators, state education officials, and district leaders should eliminate the worst-performing districts and place the schools and students in higher-performing, neighboring districts.

The individual school districts in Bexar County
The boundaries of the 15 school districts in Bexar County Credit: Courtesy / Bexar County

The four school districts that should be considered for consolidation are Harlandale ISD (14,363 students), Edgewood ISD (10,412), South San ISD (9,102), and Southside ISD (5,651). That’s about 12.5 percent of the county’s total district school students.

All four districts are fairly small, relative to the county’s larger districts, and all share low tax bases, the root of so much evil in the state’s system of public school funding. Multiple lawsuits filed over the past five decades, and subsequent half-measures by the Texas Legislature, have failed to rectify the problem of unequal funding and education opportunity.

Former state Rep. Mike Villarreal, now the director of the Institute for Urban Education at UTSA, said it best some years ago when he told me, “In Texas, we educate our children according to their ZIP code.”  It’s a shameful legacy and one that has helped shape San Antonio into one of the country’s most economically segregated cities.

The four districts also share a history of poor governance, politicized school boards, unacceptable education outcomes for their students, and state intervention by the Texas Education Agency. All except Southside are experiencing declining enrollments.

Those who favor the status quo cite each district’s unique culture formed over the past 75 years, the value of local control, and a fear of being swallowed into something bigger. But they fail to explain how leaving the districts alone will ever lead to improved education outcomes.

What would incremental consolidation look like? The San Antonio Independent School District, the inner city’s largest and most innovative district, with 50,641 students, could absorb Harlandale, South San, and Edgewood ISDs over time. That would make an expanded SAISD (84,518) larger than North East ISD (65,805), and still smaller than Northside ISD (106,086).

Southside ISD, like its higher-performing neighbor, East Central ISD, is still a mostly rural district. The two would fit together.

Of course, it is one thing to consolidate districts from a journalist’s desktop computer, and another thing to actually do it. Any consolidation would have to be preceded by very sensitive and thorough planning and community involvement. The end result might be different.

There are still too many school campuses open in the inner city, a predicament that drains tax dollars that could be spent more smartly. North East ISD, for example, houses 65,000 students at 75 campuses. SAISD’s 50,000 students are spread among 99 schools.

Consolidation is complex. The considerations are economic, cultural, and political. Overcoming community fears and concerns would be a very real part of any consolidation process. Making sure the state adequately funds the consolidation process and a necessary transition period would be essential.

These are all reasons to move forward with care. These are not reasons to do nothing. All of Bexar County’s students deserve the best possible shot at success. Continuing to turn a blind eye to failing district leadership should not be an option.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.