Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Time Is Ripe

We may not get it, but a unified school system needs our best shot.

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 10:56 AM

This is national signing week, in a way that has nothing to do with the vertical jump, bench press, or 40-yard dash. This is the week when high school seniors send in their enrollment deposits for college. At $400 or so a pop, it's a pretty big bet that is forfeited when academic stars decide on, say, Vanderbilt instead of Rhodes, Ole Miss, or SMU after getting accepted by all of them.

For some reason, it is acceptable to talk about desirable "top schools" and less desirable "lower-ranked schools" when the subject is colleges, but we get squeamish when the subject is public elementary and high schools. The politically correct thing to say is that all schools in Memphis and Shelby County should strive for excellence, or something like that.

We're not going to get to a unified school system that way. And a system that does not include the suburbs is not a unified system. We might not get there no way no how, but since we've gone to so much trouble already, we ought to give it our best shot.

It is not pandering or groveling to the suburbs to make practical compromises on attendance zones and personnel. It is not a desire for segregation or apartheid that is driving the 'burbs. Legal segregation and apartheid were enforced by courts, cops, and White Citizen's Councils. Bartlett High School is 46 percent minority, Germantown High School is 56 percent minority, Houston High School is 32 percent minority, and Collierville High School is 20 percent minority. There are only 33,000 white students in the current Memphis and Shelby County systems combined. It is not pre-Civil Rights Act 1964 or pre-busing 1972.

Louis Padgett, principal at Northaven Elementary and member of the transition team, made a good suggestion a few months ago. Members should "really go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases."

What is driving the push for municipal school systems more than race is the desire to protect the status of the top public schools and the property values of the neighborhoods around them. That is what motivated me to choose the top Memphis optional schools when I had school-age children in Memphis. I want those schools to survive. I want people who can afford to send their children to the top public and private schools to choose to live in Memphis.

I want the empty and foreclosed houses on my street to have people in them who pay their taxes, keep up their property, and compliment my wife on her garden. Darn right I want suburbanites in the same boat. Because I'm afraid that with four or five small boats and one big boat, the big boat will sink. If you're not rich and you have school-age children, why buy 2,500 square feet of Memphis property taxes if you won't send them to public school?

Here's the problem for the Transition Planning Commission. It can only make recommendations. And if the suburbs form their own school systems, their report will be moot. So it should compromise to try to save the union.

Here's the problem for the unified school board. It has a responsibility to the future but also to the present. It's the board of education, not the board of civic betterment. The main obligation of the Memphis members on it is to the people who come, not the ones who don't come.

The task force recommends closing 21 unnamed schools. That's a lot relative to the three closed this year and the four closed in 2005 but not so many relative to the 90 underutilized schools in all. The school board must not only name them but also pull the trigger before the 2013 school year to save $20 million a year. Easy to say, huh?

And here's the problem for U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays, if I can be so presumptuous. In his 146-page ruling last year, Mays had a whole section on "ripeness." A case is ripe for a judge in "a dispute that is likely to come to pass." Ripeness would not happen until "an attempt was made to create a municipal school district or special school district. Nothing in the record suggests that such an attempt has been made or will be made in the future."

Look again.

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