Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Schools Snooping

What's the end game in finding racial motives in municipal schools?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 2:29 PM

So The Commercial Appeal is willing to go to the wall before divulging the names of anonymous commenters to attorneys for the Shelby County Commission.

Another reminder that it's not only the glamour or the pay or the easy dress code, print journalism is just so ennobling.

What's that famous saying? I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your First Amendment right to say "you suck," spread rumors, and use as many fake names as you can invent until they pry your cold, cold fingers from your keyboard.

Facebook, of all things, offers a practical solution to commenting with accountability that is used by several newspapers including The Tennessean in Nashville. But that cuts down on clicks and drives commenters who crave anonymity to other websites. This business isn't dying for nothing.

Accountability, one commissioner noted, has a chilling effect on commenters. Yes, it does. It's why the commission and other public bodies require speakers to identify themselves and limit their remarks to two or three minutes. And why letters to print newspapers are signed and verified. And why reporters value accuracy and are careful about slamming people who can come visit them or might run into them on the street.

The snoopiness of the subpoena is not so much the problem as the futility of it. What, exactly, is the end game of the pending federal court case asserting that municipal school systems are racially motivated?

As the county commission's brief says, under the Unified Shelby County School System, there will be approximately 153,000 students if there are no breakaway school systems. The student demographics will be 70 percent black, 22 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, and 2.4 percent other races and nationalities.

"The Shelby County Municipal School Acts will affect these demographics in a racially discriminatory manner, creating racially homogenous school districts in the municipalities," the brief says.

The assumption is that the school district demographics would mirror the demographics of each municipality, because those are the only students they would be legally authorized to educate. Germantown, for example, would be 90 percent white and 10 percent minority. In fact, Germantown and other suburban schools educate students from unincorporated parts of the county or neighboring suburbs, boosting their minority enrollment.

It is Memphis, of course, that has mostly one-race schools, because there are only some 9,000 white students in the system. That is the result of 40 years of white flight after court-ordered busing. There are 25,000 white students in the county system.

Municipal school systems, the county commission says, "would create predominately Caucasian schools in those municipalities" and leave the unified district predominately black, very much like the current Memphis system.

Anyone up for some judicial rebalancing? That would mean sending students all over the county. Suburban rebalancing only? Then there would be 100,000 students in former Memphis schools robbed of their constitutional right to be educated in a racially integrated system. How much segregation is acceptable?

No judge in the country can come up with a "solution" to resegregation. Municipal school systems, assuming voters approve them this week, are more likely to be derailed by the other federal court case in September on the constitutionality of the state law.

Municipal schools and private schools are not the only escape hatch from the unified system. Charter schools are gaining strength in Memphis and Nashville under a state department of education that equates charters with "reform" and a change in state law that clears the way for any child to enroll. Last week, the state board of education overruled the local school board in Nashville and approved a new charter school in a middle-class area. I had no idea this was a big deal until I read about it in The Wall Street Journal.

None of this — the subpoena or the federal court cases — will advance the transition to a unified school system by August 2013. An able and willing superintendent, John Aitken, is waiting in the wings while the school board decides how it will do a search. The transition plan lacks the votes and leadership on the 23-member school board needed to implement its cost-cutting proposals. No wonder. As every member knows, a year from September, the 23-member board will become a seven-member board, which the county commission could expand to a 13-member board.

There's an accountability issue, sort of like those anonymous commenters.

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