Playing Politics with Our Future

The State of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such postsecondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines. (Article 9 Section 12 of the Tennessee State Constitution)

The importance of education is codified in our state constitution. It’s role in society as the great equalizer is understood across the partisan divide. Despite this, schools are one of the most divisive topics in state and local politics. Schools are used as a wedge to divide people across the range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Schools are an emotional topic for people, particularly those in the middle and working classes. People living in those economic conditions know first hand, for their children to thrive in their lives, a solid educational foundation is necessary. So when legislators decide to interfere in schools on partisan grounds, these are very people that should not only recoil, but express the profound outrage at such a cowardly move.

Such is the case with a bill proposed by State Sen. Mark Norris. The man who, just a month ago, made overtures to quell the fears of City residents by publicly announcing he would not seek special school district status for Shelby County Schools has decided that rather than allow the Memphis residents, who make up 70% of the population of Shelby County, their right of self-determination, the sanctity of a County school district that was built in large part thanks to the tax revenues of those very same Memphis residents is more important.

His legislative effort is not only reactionary, but a destructive force in a process that should not be, but has become, a partisan shell game of distraction, delay, and disinformation.

State Law

TCA §§ 49-1-102 (c) sets forth the following for local administration of schools:

There shall be a local public school system operated in each county or combination of counties. There may be a local public school system operated in a municipality or special school district.

You’ll note that according to this section county schools are required. The word “shall” makes it so. Municipal schools and Special School Districts are also allowed, though not required as expressed by the word “may”. This section of law clearly puts the responsibility of education on the County.

As such, maintenance of the Shelby County School District is required by state law. Memphis City Schools, on the other hand, is an optional entity that may be dissolved by a vote of the citizens of Memphis at any time we deem necessary and for any reason. Dissolving a local district has always, until now, been understood as the prerogative of the local electorate. The bill proposed by Sen. Mark Norris would change that drastically.

Throwing Up Roadblocks

The bill proposed by Sen. Norris would fundamentally change a process that has always been understood as an issue of self-determination by throwing in a roadblock that would only apply to Memphis and Shelby County by amending TCA §§ 49-2-502. Current law states:

The school board, school commissioners, school trustees or other duly constituted administrative officials of any special school district are authorized and empowered to transfer the administration of the schools in the special school district to the county board of education of the county in which the special school district is located. Before a transfer is effectuated, however, a referendum shall first be conducted on the subject, and the school system of the special school district shall not be transferred to the county unless a majority of the voters who cast votes in the referendum vote in favor of the transfer. The referendum shall be held by the county election commission when requested by the school board of the special school district, and the expenses of the election shall be paid from the funds of the special school district.

This clearly gives special school districts the right of self-determination, a right that any optional entity should have at their disposal.

Sen. Norris’ amendment to this section would remove that self-determination from the duly elected legislative body of certain districts and put it in the hands of County and City executives. The bill reads:

Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection (a) or any other law to the contrary, if the proposed transfer of the administration of the schools in the special school district would increase student enrollment within the county education agency by one hundred percent (100%) or more, then the proposed transfer shall be effectuated in the manner set forth in §§ 49-2-1201 through 49-2-1208.

In essence, this proposed bill would disempower large municipal or special school districts’ generally understood right of self-determination by giving those who were never elected to represent the people regarding educational affairs, new powers to determine the future of education.

Rocket Propelled Legislative Assault

As the Commercial Appeal reports this morning, this bill has been fast tracked by Sen. Norris, who serves as the Republican leader in the State Senate, and newly minted Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell. A vote is expected as soon as Saturday and the bill would become effective as soon as it is passed and signed. There has been no indication from incoming Governor Haslam as to whether or not he intends to sign the bill.

Because of the results of the November elections, Republicans hold large majorities in both the state House and Senate. There is no way to know for sure if state legislators are willing to pass this legislation this quickly, but considering that it really only impacts Shelby County, and is supported by suburban Shelby County Republicans, it is likely that it will glide right through the legislative process.

This represents dire consequences for Shelby County in the next two years. If a minority of our delegation is allowed to determine, at the state level, what legislation will apply to our county as a result of being in a majority statewide, there are a great number of things that could be passed through the legislature that serve only the interests of the few over the many. The Democratic majorities of the past sought to hem these legislative initiatives in committees stacked with Shelby County or Democratic legislators. That will not be the case going forward. Today the fight is about schools, tomorrow, who knows?

Litigation Imminent

Assuming this bill passes both the House and Senate on Saturday and is signed into law, there will have to be a lawsuit. Because MCS started the process before the passage of the law, despite attempts by the Shelby County Election Commission and State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins to delay the vote, a Judge will likely have to decide whether or not this change of the rules in the middle of the game applies to this scenario.

In pursuing this tactic, Norris and company have effectively exponentially increased the cost of a process that has been codified for years to the citizens of Shelby County. In addition, its reasonable to expect that additional legislative tactics intended to delay the inevitable will be employed that will also require judicial intervention.

The question must be asked, “Why does Mark Norris want to waste taxpayer dollars on frivolous legislation that necessitates judicial intervention?” Only Norris can answer that question, but this is beginning to look more and more like a war against Memphis and by extension Memphians. In waging this war Norris has staked his claim with those who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy and self-interested, and proven the points laid out by Memphis City School Board members Martavius Jones, Tomeka Hart and Represenataive GA Hardaway last month: that inaction is not an option and trust in the goodwill of others is folly.

It is an unfortunate commentary on our times, but it is the reality we face. By giving residents outside of Memphis effective veto power, as City Councilman Shea Flinn noted, Memphis is losing its ability to determine it’s future.

What reason do we have to believe they will stop with the schools? From the looks of things, they’ll stop at nothing to hinder Memphis’ ability to determine it’s future, and in doing so, relegate us to second class citizen status.

This cannot stand.

12 thoughts

  1. Unfortunately this appears to be another argument based on power, taxes, and self-determination without regard for students or education. It should be noted that those opposed to consolidation phrase their arguments in terms of power, taxes, and self-determination as well, but frankly, ALL of you need to subjugate your egos and figure out what’s actually best for children before you potentially harm them to serve your political ends.

    1. Fancywabs,

      I agree with you that this needs to be about what’s best for the students currently served by both districts. Unfortunately that has never been a significant part of the discussion. Since Shelby County Schools embarked on seeking special school district status some 10 years ago only once was the fate of all the students in Shelby County considered…this 2007-08 study commissioned by both districts. After the results of this study were released, the County district dismissed their findings and pulled out of the talks to see what impact SSD would have on all the children. So while I agree, in a perfect world it would be better to have a rich and insightful discussion about what would be “best for all the children”, that is not the discussion that SCS started, nor is it the reality that faces us today.

      The reality we now face is ultimately a political one unfortunately, but its not one the MCS board chose. It is one they identified correctly and reacted to in a manner intended to ensure that the children of MCS, who 86% of whom are extremely economically disadvantaged, aren’t put in a situation of further disadvantage by the political realities we face. You may not like this reality, but MCS didn’t invent it, they merely reacted to it.

      Finally, as to my political ends, let me be perfectly clear. My political ends as they relate to this scenario begin and end with my toddler who will be entering a MCS school in fall of 2012. Her ability to learn and thrive in an already difficult educational environment, that would no doubt be more difficult if MCS sat back and did nothing, is my primary concern. So while I am a political animal, and my partisan leanings have never been kept secret, I would appreciate you not assuming what motivates my position. My child will be one of some 150,000 children across both districts. 12,000 or so of these students will be entering school together. Providing the best educational opportunity for her, and all the children of Shelby County is my intention, not some political gain.

      Sincerely,

      Steve Ross

  2. Wow. Wharton needs to use whatever bully pulpit he has to loudly and forcefully denounce this attempt to give non-Memphians veto power over what Memphians choose to do in their city; this is disenfranchisement of an entire city by a bunch of white suburbanites. I’m not an attorney, but if I were the MCS board, I would be filing multiple lawsuits against the state right now preemptively.

  3. Steve,

    Unfortunately, the best educational opportunity for your daughter will be found outside the boundaries of either system. I say this as a parent of two former SCS students, and a former teacher in MCS. As far as the best opportunity for all the children of Shelby County, I don’t think the proposed merger, in the form that it’s currently being made, is going to improve the situation in either system–and is likely to make things worse in both of them. And I’m in favor of merging the systems, ultimately–this is just the wrong way to go about it.

  4. Fancy, there is no other way to go about it. This is the only way it will ever happen. The suburbanites won’t ever agree to it, and if this doesn’t work, they will erect a funding wall that guarantees Memphis and MCS will suffer further. With the help of the anti-Memphis state legislature.

  5. Fancy,

    Mike is correct that this is the only way the two systems will ever merge. However, joining the systems is not the main issue here. Sure, there are some people who are just for consolidation, but MCS wasn’t trying to relinquish its charter. The issue, as I understand it, is more about funding. And it was the funding issue that would result from SCS becoming a SSD that forced the hand of MCS.

  6. It’s my belief that if SCS had agreed to compromise several years ago and agree to single source funding, this wouldn’t be happening now.

  7. Still waiting on the “this will be good for students” argument to present itself. From anywhere. ‘Cause right now all I’m hearing is money–including the 2007-2008 study Steve referenced.

    Even if you have to lie to do it, you ought to be able to at least make a case where it would be good for students, without begging the question.

    1. Fancy,

      As much as I hate to admit it, money plays a HUGE role in education. It pays teacher salaries, and gets kids to and from school on busses. It buys textbooks (that Texas has approved apparently), it pays for before and after school programs, etc. So, while you’re waiting for a “this will be good for students” argument the fundamental truth of all of this is that it is about funding and taxes and all the things that shouldn’t be about education, but are. The truth is, you cannot separate the two.

      So, will this be good for students? I don’t know for sure. I think it will, but I don’t think anyone can Miss Cleo this thing with any certainty.

      So since we don’t have an answer to the future we need to ask ourselves some questions about the present, and the consequences of the alternative futures that were laid out in the study.

      Question 1: Is the status quo good for students? Apparently not…at least for the majority of them. Hell, even SCS is struggling to educate their children. The most recent report card shows that SCS is only doing marginally better than MCS. That “better” can probably be attributed to the higher socio-economic status of SCS children more than anything else. In any case, both systems are failing.

      Question 2: If any of the scenarios set forth in the study happen, will that be good for students? Yes, for a very small number of them for a little while, but the vast majority will be faced with a school district that is continually struggling for funding education for a horribly impoverished population. This is not an environment that “will be good for the students”.

      Based on those two questions, I think we can all agree that the status quo isn’t working, and the alternatives laid out in the study are not good for students.

      Which brings us back to your question about whether or not this will be “good for students”. I go back to my initial, “I don’t know”. I think it will be better. I think that outdated buildings in the current MCS system will have to be brought up to the same level as those in SCS, which are newer. I think that there are opportunities for focusing resources to areas of need, ala the Shea Flinn idea of several “mini districts” that are more locally controlled and focused on the needs of the community. We’ve seen some success with this at the school level in Whitehaven, where the parents have taken a keen interest, and that school, despite being a more working class area, seems to be doing well according to sources who are more intimately involved in education than I (and assuming I’m remembering the information correctly).

      Finally, I think that when we all have to deal with education at the same table, rather than two tables, the issues that our community, which includes all of Shelby County, faces can be addressed more effectively.

      In short (too late, I know), I think this will be good for students because it will force us to think differently about education than we have since the 1970’s. I think this will be good for students because I believe it gives us the opportunity to completely re-invent the way we do things. All of this is contingent on us actually thinking differently or re-inventing. I have no idea whether we will or not. No one does. No one knows anything about what the future holds. So we just have to make a choice based on intentions and our understanding of the situation.

      That’s what I’ve done, and I’m pretty sure you have too.

  8. fancy, it would most assuredly be bad for students of MCS 10 years from now when that system had to rely on a declining tax base for funding. But in my pessimistic moments, I think that perhaps that is exactly what the fate of this entire metro area is going to be.

  9. I’m relying on the study you provided here, but am I correct in reading that MCS spends more per student than SCS does? Yet MCS doesn’t actually do things like provide students with textbooks.

    The success stories in MCS (such as Whitehaven) are taking place where parents have taken it upon themselves to do right by the students in spite of the complete disregard MCS has shown for their education. The same is likely true of SCS–I can’t speak for them as I’ve never been a teacher there, only a parent.

    My feelings are that a merged school system under the present strategy are likely to drive citizens concerned about education (who aren’t affluent enough to afford private school) outside the county borders, to Southaven, Hernando, Marion, or elsewhere. This will drive down property values county-wide, decreasing the amount spent on schools instead of increasing it.

    The merged school board will be 70% composed of folks who put MCS in its current condition, assuming Memphis City voters repeat the mistakes of the past. What effect this has on teachers remains to be seen, but I don’t think I’m overreaching to think that some Shelby County teachers will opt to look elsewhere rather than be sucked into the toxic environment of Memphis City Schools.

    I hope, for the kids sake, that I’m wrong. Having the state grant privileged status to Shelby County Schools is every bit as toxic as a merger, and the wheels that have set this in motion were acting rashly, to try to force the issue when MCS is in such a sorry state, instead of after a time when some of the initiatives to try to improve the schools (Gates grant, etc) had had a chance to make some progress. I’m fortunate in that I no longer have to deal with the outcome of whatever y’all decide except in the misery of my friends, and the general consequences of poor education, but I still wish you the best, however this turns out.

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