A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary.
A student runs through the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A heat-map approach to identifying the worst pockets of poverty in San Antonio Independent School District provided the model for a new way for the State of Texas to allocate funds to districts educating low-income students.

In the past, the State and SAISD viewed poverty largely through a binary lens: students were deemed economically disadvantaged if they qualified for free or reduced-price lunch at the federal level. In SAISD, more than 90 percent of students were eligible. But the system did not distinguish between children living in the harshest poverty and those who had somewhat more substantial resources.

“It is a very inelegant way [to measure poverty] that assumes that kids on free lunch and kids on reduced-price lunch are exactly the same,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice chair of the House Public Education Committee. “If you’re honest, you know that they probably need different levels of help. In a city like ours where the poverty rate is so high, we need something more precise and surgical to get to the places that need the most help.”

Mohammed Choudhury was hired in 2017 as SAISD’s chief innovation officer and brought with him from Dallas ISD a new way to look at socioeconomic status. His system broke down poverty by census block and sorted students into one of four categories based on their family’s median income, whether a family owned its home, whether the student lived with a single parent, and the level of the parents’ educational attainment.

San Antonio Independent School District Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury enjoys an iced coffee at Rosella.
San Antonio Independent School District Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury

The poorest students were sorted into Block 4, where the median household income was below $20,000. Students in this category were concentrated on the East and West Sides of SAISD in the neighborhoods surrounding Sam Houston and Lanier high schools. Choudhury used this system to ensure new school models such as magnet programs comprised students from varied socioeconomic levels.

“Ultimately, the bigger push my team wanted was to start using [the system] for resource allocation,” Choudhury said. The chief innovation officer wanted to use the system to match the highest-need students with the district’s limited resources.

That’s where the State Legislature came in. Choudhury and SAISD administrators began talking to lawmakers about transforming the way Texas allocated state funds to public schools. They argued that the poorest students required more resources and should be given more funds as a result. 

As House and Senate public education committees debated how to transform the public education funding system this spring, SAISD administrators visited Austin to advocate for the socioeconomic block system. Ultimately, legislators incorporated the model in their school finance overhaul package, known as House Bill 3.

Shortly after the legislative session ended, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods pointed to the new system as perhaps the biggest change in the way the State funds schools.

“This is the most important part of the bill in my opinion, and it is the part of the bill that I worked the hardest to help create with tremendous guidance from SAISD and Mohammed in particular,” Bernal said.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio)

The State’s system varies slightly from San Antonio ISD’s model. Instead of using four blocks, the State has five tiers. The Texas Education Agency plans to use median household income, average educational attainment, percentage of single-parent households, home ownership rate, and one additional factor that has yet to be determined.

A statewide committee, which includes both Choudhury and Woods, is responsible for defining the fifth factor and resolving other questions that might affect the funding system. For example, the advisory committee will look into how to treat homeless students who don’t have an address and therefore can’t be assigned to a census block. Currently, such students are assigned the address of their campus, which can skew the data because many homeless students choose to attend schools in higher socioeconomic areas.

Roughly six months after the legislation passed, how San Antonio schools will be impacted by this changing definition of poverty is becoming clearer. This summer, the State released a spreadsheet showing where each campus will fall in the new tier system. As student enrollment numbers fluctuate year to year, these numbers stand to change.

About 50 percent of San Antonio ISD and 75 percent of Edgewood ISD schools qualify for the highest level of funding to support the poorest students. Roughly 90 percent of Harlandale ISD students and 83 percent of South San ISD students fall in the two most impoverished tiers.

Students in wealthier districts to the north are spread more evenly among the socioeconomic tiers. About half of North East and Northside ISDs’ students fall into the highest income tiers. Sixty percent of Alamo Heights ISD’s students also fall into those tiers.

The Texas Education Agency census tier map for Bexar County

Regardless of the income level of their students, all districts will be given more money under the new system.

Before the passage of House Bill 3, schools received an estimated $1,000 in additional funding for each student who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Now they’ll receive from $1,400 to $1,700, depending on the student’s socioeconomic tier, according to TEA officials.

Choudhury said it is important to look at how this money is used going forward, Choudhury said. State law stipulates that money from the state compensatory education allotment program can only supplement the education of students who are considered at risk of dropping out of school. That means the money can’t cover what students already must have as part of their basic education. It must be used to provide additional supports.

The TEA will make rules on how school districts will be required to use the new funds. That will be important to continue showing the need for such money in future legislative sessions, Choudhury said.

“Universal research does show more money does matter and more money does lead to better outcomes,” he said. “But at the end of the day, money does have to land in the right places.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.