in Houston, Texas

Rich school, poor school: How much Houston ISD spends to educate each child varies greatly between schools

Thursday, Nov 18, 2010, 01:40PM CST
By Lynn Walsh

The sounds of fast-moving students, laughter and loud conversations greet you as you enter Ryan Middle School on a Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m. -- but the students are not headed home. Their day in class, learning, will continue for at least another hour.

The longer class days are just some of the changes that came this year to the school in the Third Ward as Houston’s public school system launched a $29 million program to revamp failing schools. Also added at Ryan: a longer school year, new school leadership, new academic programs and additional tutoring.

The school system is slated to spend more than $10,000, on average, on each of Ryan’s 380 students this year, according to district records. The total expense for the school this year: $3.9 million.

Just three miles away, in the Montrose neighborhood, each child at Lanier Middle is slated to have $4,470 spent on them this year. And while Ryan is struggling, Lanier is rated as “recognized” by the state, the second-highest designation the Texas Education Agency gives to public schools.

The amount of money spent to educate children in the Houston Independent School District is severely inconsistent from school to school, a Texas Watchdog review of HISD data has found.

The gap between spending at Ryan and Lanier middle schools is only one of numerous discrepancies, and few patterns can be found in how the nation’s seventh-largest school system decides to spend money educating children.

(Texas Watchdog has made all of HISD’s school funding data available for you to see for yourself -- click this link to visit our search page to see all the funding sources for any HISD school.)

Some schools ranked “exemplary” by the state spend enough on each child each year to buy the kid a brand new car -- such as T.H. Rogers Middle, west of Memorial Park, where each child is slated to have $18,027 spent on them this year.

Other exemplary schools could only buy each kid a used car. A really used car. That’s where Pin Oak Middle in Bellaire falls, with just $4,800 being spent per child. Pin Oak and T.H. Rogers are just five miles’ distance from each other.

The funding levels are also all over the map for schools that aren’t doing so well. Students at Ryan Middle were already having more than $10,000 a year spent on them last year, before HISD began pumping millions of extra dollars into the school as part of its turnaround program dubbed Apollo 20. Meanwhile, struggling Westside High School -- ranked only “academically acceptable” by the state -- spends just $4,714 per student, HISD data shows.

“The discrepancies in school funding have bothered me, and I have been arguing with the district about them for a while,” said Jay Aiyer, a Pin Oak parent. “There is no rhyme or reason to how HISD funds schools, and I have been pushing for this review for a while.”

Pin Oak, ranked “exemplary” by the state this year, will receive $5.19 million in funding this year, or slightly more than $4,800 per student.

Aiyer has been e-mailing district officials about the funding discrepancies related to magnet programs and overall school funding in HISD and finally received a response in April around the same time the school system began talks about reviewing its roughly 100 magnet programs.

He’s not the only one asking questions.

“It is mind boggling,” said Debbie Taylor, a parent at Parker Elementary, another HISD school in Bellaire that was rated as exemplary this year and which falls in the middle of the elementary school pack, funding-wise. “I can’t really grasp why this is happening, and the amount of money that some school receive when they are not even some of the best schools in the state.”

T.H. Rogers and Ryan middles have the third- and fourth-highest per-child expenses of all the middle schools in HISD, the data showed. (Two other middle schools, Harper Alternative and the HCC Life Skills program, have still higher per-child spending rates than T.H. Rogers and Ryan, though they are both alternative or non-traditional programs that would likely offer more expensive, specialized services to their students, driving up the per-child expense.)

Meanwhile, the middle school spending the least, New Aspirations in Sharpstown, will spend just $2,706 per student.

Pin Oak is limited in the programs it can offer, such as in foreign languages, because of the lack of funds, Aiyer said. “I think there is a minimum level or threshold of money every school should receive,” he said. “I also think that certain kids need certain amounts of money, but sometimes that money is not being used properly.”


Some of the confusion stems from the numerous pots of money from which HISD’s 300-plus schools get cash each year.

The school district approves a dollar amount each year -- as part of its annual budget -- that acts as a sort of minimum level that will be spent on each child. (For an elementary school this year, it’s $3,485, for middle schools, $3,510, and high schools, $3,474.) Each school then receives that amount from the school system for each child enrolled.

That’s the main pot of cash that funds each school.

But then there are 37 others, too.

Some schools, including Ryan, get extra money for having magnet programs. Some get extra money for being small. Some get bilingual supplements. Some get career and technology funds. Then there’s the campus project fund. Summer school money. Some get additional money from a transportation and maintenance fund. The list goes on.

More than 100 schools in HISD receive magnet funding that ranges from more than $473,000 a year per school to just a little more than $5,000.

Magnet school funding -- totalling $16.9 million this year -- varies drastically from campus to campus, HISD data shows. HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has brought in a non-profit education group, Magnet Schools of America, to review HISD’s magnet programs. It is expected to make final recommendations to the board of trustees next month.

Another example is the small school subsidy, given to campuses across the district that meet certain thresholds for having low enrollment. This year HISD is expecting to give more than $10 million to small schools, varying from $301,000 at Williams Middle, on the north side of town, to just around $2,000 for Kelso Elementary on the south side, which the state has rated academically unacceptable.

Each school can get money from some or all of the pots in a given year. Ryan Middle, for instance, will receive in $268,000 in small school subsidies, nearly $50,000 in magnet funding for the 12-student gifted education magnet program, stimulus money and federal and state funding this year, on top of general fund revenue from HISD.


What does a $10,000 middle school education look like?

At Ryan, it is not about having the most high-tech equipment or innovative building in the district. It is about hiring people who can make a difference and motivate students who may not receive the motivation and encouragement they need from home, according to members of the HISD staff who work or volunteer with students at Ryan.

With new staff members from some of the most elite charter schools in the country, like KIPP, Ryan is developing programs and classes that create an atmosphere of trust and respect in the classroom. On top of new staff, all of the classes, except gifted-ed and the magnet program, are gender-specific, including lunch.

“These students come from families in which they may never see respect in the household,” said Wendi Turner, who helps oversee some of the volunteer programs at Ryan. “We are trying to create and instill trust and respect first so it then transforms into academic success in the classroom.” Hear more about what Turner and the Ryan staff are doing in the clip below.

One program Ryan is using to do this is the “Butterfly” group -- a weekly meeting of female students, staff and community volunteers who openly discuss how young people can keep anger under control and respect one another and themselves.

“I never had this growing up,” said Epiphany Sahar, a volunteer and artist. “I was never told I could succeed, and if you are never told that how are you supposed to want to?”

Sahar grew up in the neighborhood surrounding Ryan and flies back and forth from New York City to Houston weekly to help with the Butterfly group. Watch all of her comments in the clip below.

At the same time, parents at successful schools that don’t get $10,000 a year per student said success takes more than just money.

“I think the culture of the school breeds a certain academic excellence,” Aiyer said of Pin Oak. “They force academic involvement, whether it is a student that is struggling or a Vanguard (gifted) student. There is an expectation of academic rigor that is there.”

It’s the staff and the community’s dedication and approach to discipline that help create academic excellence, Taylor said.

Her child’s school is expected to receive $3.9 million in school funding this year for more than 800 students. With a little more than $5,200 per student, Parker is right in the middle of the amount of funding an average elementary school in HISD will receive this year.

The diversity of the school -- its enrollment is roughly a third white, a third black and a third Latino -- is a plus, she said. Also, the school has good teachers, and PTA involvement at the school is huge.

“It is a hands-on PTA and there is a lot of manpower involved,” Taylor said. “The money raised and what they achieve with it is worthwhile.”

Martha Jenkinson, a PTA leader at Bellaire High School, knows first-hand what money raised through parent organizations can do.

Deemed a “recognized” school by the state, 3,000-student Bellaire is expected to receive more than $14.4 million in funding this year, or $4,769 a student -- spending less per child than many other high schools in the district.

To augment that, each year the PTA at Bellaire awards equipment grants to teachers.

“The grants are for equipment they think might be an advantage to their students. Sometimes it is a camera, additional microscopes -- things a teacher might need that they cannot afford to purchase through the school budget,” Jenkinson said.

The PTA at Bellaire gives out about $25,000 in teacher grants every year, Jenkinson said.

“The business officer at the school sits with us and looks at what the school can fun and what it cannot,” Jenkinson said. “If the school cannot cover the cost, the PTA will try to.”

Bellaire is not the only school that funds programs or equipments with the help of parents.

At Parker, Taylor pays a $150 magnet fee each year to cover additional costs associated with the school’s music magnet and says the money spent “is worthwhile.”

Do you have an opinion about school funding in HISD? Texas Watchdog wants to hear from you. Contact Lynn Walsh at or 713-228-2850. Follow her on Twitter, twi

Photo of a teacher in a classroom by flickr user EngComm, used via a Creative Commons license.

Friday, 11/19/2010 - 01:19PM

I think the money differences speak for themselves and are crazy...After watching the videos from the Ryan staff--I was surprised there was no mention of academic help. No mention of giving kids books to read or using mentors to tutor. I am all for mentoring and role-models--but if we don't push the kids to learn--it will all be for waste.

Monday, 11/22/2010 - 10:10AM

"Sahar grew up in the neighborhood surrounding Ryan and flies back and forth from New York City to Houston weekly to help with the Butterfly group. Watch all of her comments in the clip below."

Are you kidding me? HISD pays to have a former neighborhood resident fly up and back from New York EVERY week? I wonder who Ms. Sahar is friends with? Exactly what does Ms. Sahar do to help? How much does Ms. Sahar get paid for this community work?

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