The last time that Memphis and Charlotte were mentioned in the local news together was 1993, when Charlotte and Jacksonville scored NFL expansion franchises and Memphis got snubbed.
This week, Memphis took another look at Charlotte, but the focus was schools, not sports. The new Memphis and Shelby County School Board and the Transition Planning Team met for two hours with emissaries from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) that made busing an American household word.
Coincidentally, it was almost one year from the day since the Memphis school board voted to surrender its charter, setting off the long march to merged schools in 2013. Since catching the consolidation bug in 2010, Memphis has friended Jacksonville, Louisville, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Chattanooga in search of Things That Might Work Here.
As such visits go, this one was pretty good. The four wise men from the East included a former superintendent, the current board chairman, a former school board member, and a former principal. CMS won a national award this year for excellence in urban education, but this was not a butt-patting session.
"Progress has been painfully slow, and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte, it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed," said former Superintendent Pete Gorman, who resigned last summer after closing some schools, a job he said cannot be done well and was physically exhausting.
The Charlotte Observer said "the closings mostly affected low-income and minority students." Two blacks replaced two whites on the nine-member board after an election this year. The newspaper says only one member of the CMS board has more than two years' experience.
In public education, Charlotte Mecklenburg is famous as the school system that gave America busing for desegregation after a series of court cases culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1970. Today, the 136,000-student system has a diverse population that is 41 percent black, 33 percent white, and 16 percent Hispanic. Forty magnet schools attract 25,000 students, and the rest attend neighborhood schools, Gorman said. The graduation rate is 73 percent, about the same as Memphis.
As for the city of Charlotte, the grass really is greener. It is the home of Bank of America, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and an NFL team. The population (731,424) grew 35 percent between 2000-2010; 40 percent of adults are college graduates; per-capita income is $31,839; and only 12 percent of the population is poor. Memphis lost population during that time, per-capita income is $21,293, and the poverty number is 24 percent.
Gorman and friends urged the Memphians to "build a bench" of future principals and assistant principals from among promising young teachers. Move good principals and assistants along with five teachers as a group to the toughest schools, but not against their will. Give them three years to turn around a school. Give affluent schools less money and poor schools more money — as much as $7,000 more per student. Make even top schools show year-over-year gains. Pick a superintendent for the consolidated district sooner rather than later. And expect to move on if you are the superintendent who has to close schools.
The overriding message was "freedom and flexibility with accountability."
Heads nodded at that something-for-everyone maxim, but in the question-and-answer session, the differences between Charlotte and Memphis became apparent, and so did some of the fault lines on the new Shelby County school board.
Charlotte's downtown is its biggest economic engine, much more than the suburbs. The North Carolina legislature blocked efforts of municipalities to set up separate school systems, and the number of school districts in the state has shrunk from 175 to 115. The cap on charter schools has been lifted. Twenty applications were approved, and Gorman expects "a glut of them" to come.
Joe Clayton, the senior member of the Shelby County board and a veteran of the busing years, said there is fear in the suburbs that "when the dust settles, the principal and the lead teachers will be moved to an inner-city school or some other school." Eric Davis, chairman of the CMS board, said working at tough schools and "playing the toughest opponents" can become "a point of pride." Brave words, but if you can imagine flight to Frayser, then you can do something I cannot.
Friending other cities is a good way to start a conversation and get some fresh perspective. But it's superficial. Every city is different. So go ahead and click "accept." But don't expect answers.