It Hasn’t Worked Thus Far, Why Would It Work Now?

In this morning’s Commercial Appeal, MCS School Board Member, Dr. Jeff Warren pens an Op-Ed prescribing the conditions necessary for a stand-down in the current stand-off between Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Memphis City Schools (MCS).

The column, entitled “Let’s get MAD about our schools face-off”, calls for the two districts to come together to work for an equitable solution that affirms the dedication of both systems to the education of all the children of Shelby County.

Playing on the acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that many have applied to the possible consolidation of the schools, Warren proposes the idea of Mutually Assured Dedication, a series of agreements with consequences for both SCS and MCS should either breach the terms as well as a shared interest in the education of all the children of Shelby County.

Further, Warren calls on Senator Norris and Representative Lollar to publicly state they will work to ensure that Shelby County is excluded from any Special School District status legislation should the issue come up in the state legislature this session.

As a general statement, I agree with the ideas that Dr. Warren says created the current situation. Even though I was only 1 year old, and didn’t live here at the time, I agree that forced busing in the 1970’s caused many people a great deal of dissatisfaction and the consequences of that decision led many to vote with their feet, moving into the county and ultimately, building up the county school district to its current size, not to mention the large number of thriving private school institutions that have arrived on the scene or expanded since.

Warren likens SCS’s push for Special School District Status to creating

permanent inequality by instituting a special school district that will never have to be involved with poor inner-city children.

I also agree with this assessment. Whether those served by SCS want to admit it, they are currently negatively impacted by the abject poverty and other conditions present in the City schools. This impact is felt in the struggle to attract high quality, good paying jobs to our area. Simply put, the challenge of seeking broad based economic opportunity for all residents of Shelby County has been made more difficult by the mass exodus of students from MCS (either through private education or moving to county schools), and people from the City core, starting in the 70’s and continuing to this day.

With this in mind, it’s clear that there already exists a fundamental disconnect between many outside the city school system and the hard realities inside the city borders. There is currently no real dedication by Shelby County residents as a whole, to reverse the conditions of poverty and want that ultimately sustain the dire outcomes for so many of our children in the City system. So why, even under the threat of consolidation, anyone would think a shift in philosophy so extreme would occur now is beyond me.

Currently, public education in Shelby County sustains a “separate but equal” system, whereby children with more economic advantages are paired with economic peers as are those with fewer advantages thanks to political boundaries that are both irrational and arbitrary. The consequence of this arrangement is a further widening of the gaps between the two rather than providing both with equal educational opportunities and a sense of shared destiny. In short, sustaining the current scenario in a “stand down” agreement is merely maintaining a system of inequality that has persisted for generations, not a solution. Nothing about this condition serves the people, or the children of Shelby County well.

Further complicating the issue is the political situation outside Shelby County. The politics of this issue are not confined to just the SCS Board, the MCS Board, Senator Norris or Representative Lollar. There are 32 additional State Senators and 98 State Representatives, any one of whom could propose a private act that would ultimately give Special School District status to SCS. Given the massive shift in the political makeup of both the State Senate and House, and the presence of quite a few ideological bomb throwers, Sen. Brian “last vestige of slavery” Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) among them, does anyone actually believe that both Norris and Lollar can maintain the line in Nashville? For goodness sake, Sen. Kelsey almost killed a bill he supported with his “last vestige of slavery” remark. Does anyone believe he can keep it together long enough to not “accidentally” screw this up? Color me skeptical.

While I agree with Dr. Warren on many of the conditions that have created the current situation, I disagree with him and City Councilman Jim Strickland on the potential outcomes of school consolidation. Writing in the Commercial Appeal on December 16th, Strickland opined that

it is safe to assume that the suburban residents would have stronger negative opinions of merging their school system with the city’s than they did about the consolidation issue debated this fall. One MCS board member has publicly worried that a schools merger would result in increased flight from Shelby County.

Where, I ask, are they going to go? Tipton? Fayette? DeSoto? Perhaps, but they do so at their own peril. None of these districts can provide the educational opportunities that a combined MCS/SCS can. They lack the bricks and mortar as well as the instructors to deal with a massive influx of students. Further, most of the people who live outside the City limits work in Memphis. Are they honestly going to try to sell their homes in this market, and move to an unproven district with fewer resources just to get away from Memphis? I don’t think so, but if they do, it again proves my point that these individuals have no interest in building all quarters of our community up for the common good. It is a sad commentary on our society.

I applaud Dr. Warren’s efforts to negotiate a “stand down”, however, I generally agree with Rep. GA Hardaway’s assessment as reported on the 14th

(Shelby County schools will) push the pedal to the metal, headed to special school district. If you let this window of opportunity pass you by, I have no reason to believe they won’t put that pedal to the metal again.

For the majority of MCS students, 90% of whom are African American and 86% of whom are on free or reduced lunches, the specter of a further loss of funding, which would further negatively impact their already dire educational outcomes, is not something I’m willing to chance to an agreement that relies primarily on the good will or good intentions of individuals who have sought no remedy to our problems until now, when their system of “separate but equal” is challenged. I agree with John Branston of the Memphis Flyer, we haven’t been able to reach a compromise so far, there’s no reason to believe we will now, and we have to end the “us” versus “them” mentality that continues to divide our community.

Will the surrender of the MCS charter be messy? Absolutely. If the School Board decides to put it on the ballot in March, I fully anticipate that SCS will initiate a full court press to not only maintain, but expand the inequality between the two systems. I think everyone involved understands that the ultimate outcome will be decided in the courts.

What about the children, won’t they suffer? Not any more than they are now. The current scenario will likely be “frozen” by a Federal court injunction until the issue is resolved, which may be a few years down the road. Anything the State or SCS tries to do after MCS starts the referendum process will likely be viewed unfavorably by the Federal Courts as an attempt to circumvent a long codified and widely understood process that was law upon the initiation of the referendum. That said, I am not, nor do I claim to be an attorney. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of attorney’s out there on this particular issue.

Ultimately, this is a question about the sustainability of Shelby County as an economic engine for our region. Coming together, recognizing the potential for the common good, and working to reverse the abject economic and educational poverty in our community, which is the true “last vestige of slavery”, is the only way to positively impact the outcomes of all our children. In order for this to work, we all have to have skin in the same game, not two different games with differing agendas. To that end, I humbly ask the MCS School Board to vote to surrender the charter, and allow the people of our City, who make up 70% of the population of Shelby County, to have the ultimate voice in the decision.

5 thoughts

  1. Well said!

    If people really want to fix the schools in the city, here is what I recommend they do.

    1. Get the troublemakers out of the classroom. Put them in a school by themselves, sign them up for some sort of social service stint preferably in a third world country such as parts of Africa so they can gain an appreciation for what they have here.

    2. Stop children from having children. A 15 year old is not equipped to raise a child.

    3. Hold the males responsible for children having children.

    4. Put discipline back in the classroom.

    5. Let teachers teach and pay them well for the work they do.

  2. Breckrider:

    I get where you’re coming from, I think, though I also think the whole Africa thing could be misconstrued. Suffice it to say that while I’m 20 years past my time in High School, the experience of living in a nation that doesn’t afford its citizens the rights and luxuries we have here would be an eye opening experience.

    At least I hope that’s what you’re saying.

    As for items 2-5, I completely agree. As the child of two teachers in a family of teachers, I’ve heard the stories, the 6th grader who got pregnant by an 8th grader. The way the administration ties the hands of teachers in many instances. The reliance on test preparation which far and away defines the difference between “schooling” and “education”. Its tough and often frustrating work and often the rewards, including compensation, don’t quite seem to make up for the frustrations.

    If you are a teacher, I wish you well and hope you are not too terribly effected by what is likely to come. Both the teachers and the students have been largely left out of this debate, partially due to the political context in which it began, and partially due to the timeframe involved.

    At the end of the day I hope that whatever the result, it ends up that both the teachers and the students find themselves in a better educational environment.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. Yes, the reference to Africa is not about color, it’s about being in a country that doesn’t have the freedoms and “luxuries” that we have. Deal with a county whose people have to walk 4 miles for water or outside to use the bathroom or live without electricity and air conditioning, who don’t have access to an education but want it desperately.

    I’m not a teacher but have a child in the city schools–actually, a charter school–and have experienced some of the unruly children and the lack of action on the school’s part. It’s maddening.

  4. I know many of the problems stem from different roots than the Lakeview Decsion in Arkansas, but I wonder what would happen if a school district would sue the state because it was unable to deliver an eqitable education when compared to other public schools because of state law, policies, or actions.

    Just a thought.

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