Katy Independent School District: A Study in Local Control & Adaptive Approaches to Education Reform
Written by Eamon McCarthy Earls, J.D., Antonin Scalia College of Law at George Mason University
Katy, Texas straddles the edge of the vast Houston metropolitan area, America’s fourth biggest city and urban economy. A town of slightly over 14,000 with good barbecue, a mid-20th century high school, and an old concrete grain elevator towering above neighboring ranch houses, Katy hardly seems big enough to have an orbit of its own. But the town gives its name to the Katy Independent School District (ISD), one of 20 independent public school districts in the metro.
Katy ISD is one of the best school systems in Texas, spurring substantial population growth as families intent on a good education for their children move in. By 2026, the district is expected to reach 100,000 students. But rapid growth has also resulted in some of the worst traffic in the nation on freeways linking the Katy area with the rest of Houston.
Nationally, Southern and Western locations are generally more likely to have large land area cities and overall fewer incorporated municipalities than many locations in the North, with a particular density of incorporated places in areas like New York, New Jersey, and New England. Very large school districts can achieve economies of scale, but can also limit delink communities from control of their own school systems. By contrast, in areas like New England, without any unincorporated areas, locally controlled schools abound except in the largest cities. While patterns are also likely explained by aspects like funding and demographics, some degree of connection between school district and educational performance can be discerned in national education performance data.
Dotted throughout west-central Houston are the small landlocked Memorial Villages: Spring Valley Village, Piney Point Village, Bunker Hill Village, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village and Hunters Creek Village. The Memorial Villages were incorporated in the mid-1950s, yet retain Houston addresses. Some are extraordinarily small, like the City of Hillshire Village, which covers on 0.27 square miles. The Villages are almost universally served by the small Spring Branch ISD, an educational carve out from the much bigger city on all sides. Although designed to be an option to locally control schools and ensure good education for higher income residents on Houston’s western edge, the inexorable growth of the city around the Spring Branch ISD led to a fall off in construction, a stagnation in the tax base, and demographic changes in the 1980s. The district closed several schools and education performance has suffered in the years since.
The example of Katy and the Memorial Villages is repeated in different forms all across the nation. Wealthy and education-focused communities spring up within easy commuting distance of city centers, but in some cases undergo tax base and demographic shifts that spur more outward expansion of the city to areas where people can better control education funding and outcomes, as in the shifts witnessed by Spring Branch ISD and Katy ISD. In other cases, traditionally wealthier areas manage to hold onto high school performance compared to surrounding areas. Examples include Plano and Richardson, Texas, both seen as similar to Spring Branch ISD in the 1980s, but currently performing well compared with the Dallas ISD.
The US Department of Education notes, “Demography plainly influences state educational performance. But state-by-state disparities of such magnitude suggest that demography is not destiny in determining student achievement and attainment. State policies matter.” National educational performance data does not necessarily fit neatly with narratives about education performance data, mostly because of the localized diversity of municipalities and school districts that often is not captured when looking at the state level.
School choice and charter school advocates define greater flexibility in education as the “civil rights issue of our time.” Those opposed to school choice in the form of charter schools often fear that school choice will gut already overstretched school districts, leading to a sort of death spiral in funding and performance. Finding ways to restore local and neighborhood control to school districts, while equalizing funding as much as possible will be an essential ingredient in American education for the future.
Already, most states have diverted countless millions of dollars in state aid to cash-strapped school district, particularly states like New York. In other cases, states like Texas have extended state university scholarships to the upper echelon from every high school. But these approaches haven’t always adapted based on performance data, mashing up students from schools of vastly differently calibers on what amounts to an unequal playing field in universities. Funding formulas can encourage schools to simply try to retain students, rather than taking adaptive approaches to education or allowing more individualized choices to families. For state and local leaders, the lessons of the tremendous growth of far-flung districts like Katy ISD are clear. Ensuring flexibility, efficient funding, and localized control is critical for families with students, regardless of where they live. Very large school districts may struggle with meeting the needs of diverse neighborhoods, or ensuring level funding, in the process spurring urban sprawl or the creation of more exclusive districts for wealthier residents.