The panel was called "Education as a 21st Century Civil Rights Issue," but it could have been called "What Do We Do Next Week?" when we return to our regularly scheduled programming and the messy business of picking the next superintendent of the Memphis City Schools and their 115,000 students.
The local and national media were fixated on Martin Luther King Jr., the bleak prospects of sanitation workers in 1968, assassination theories, sound bites and photo ops, the Memphis Invaders, 1960s radical Angela Davis, the suicide of Baskerville Holmes, the whereabouts of the 1985 Memphis State Tigers and Dana Kirk, Andre Allen's pharmacology report, and the Final Four. Meanwhile, a distinguished group of superintendents, former superintendents, mayors, and former mayors talked about the godawful problems of today's public schools, the bleak prospects of millions of students who attend them, and what if anything can be done about them.
They included Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education; Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington D.C.; Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools; Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee; and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans.
Memphians stayed away in droves. Perhaps 15-20 Memphians in a "crowd" of no more than 40 people showed up for the panel at The Peabody, including school board members Tomeka Hart and Freda Williams and Teresa Sloyan and Barbara Hyde of the Hyde Family Foundations. Otherwise, zip.
The most instructive lessons for Memphis came from Fenty and Rhee, who have teamed up to try to turn around the 55,000-student District of Columbia Public Schools which are demographically similar to the Memphis City Schools. Fenty, 38 years old and a D.C. native, was elected mayor in 2006 with 89 percent of the vote. Rhee, a 38-year-old Korean-American and alumnus of the Teach For America program, accepted Fenty's offer last June to become "the most unlikely person" to lead the school system after being promised wide latitude and authority.
Fenty and Rhee could pass for college students. Their combined age -- 76 -- is only slightly more than Willie Herentons 67 years. But in many ways they are on the same page: work as team, eliminate the school board, close underused schools, break eggs if necessary, speak plainly, and focus relentlessly on student achievement and well-being.
As part of the teacher corps, Rhee took 90 percent of her students from the 13th percentile to the 90th percentile in three years. Teachers, she confessed, were able to do little or nothing about the students' home life, diet, or parents.
"What changed was the adult who was in front of them in school every single day and the expectations," she said.
Rhee said public education should be "the great equalizer" but, instead, the "biggest social injustice" is the difference in schools in poor and well-to-do districts. "When I talked to kids at some schools, they said 'we have 15 teachers a day absent. How do you expect us to learn with nobody here to teach us?'"
Fenty, jokingly called "the messiah" in an introduction by Rev. Al Sharpton, said "a lot of people have made livelihoods on a broken education system for a long time." He said he is willing to close schools, cut jobs, and fire people if it helps kids even though "the push-back is enormous." The first step on the road to improvement, he said, was "get rid of the school board" because the superintendent must be able to make quick decisions. He put the district's budget surplus into education and is trying to raise another $75 million for public schools from the private sector.
Rhee said accountability was missing when there was a school board. She said Fenty "has created a dynamic in the District of Columbia which is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." The mayor, she said, asked her two questions when she took the job: How can I help and how quickly can you move?
In an interview with the Flyer, Rhee said she responded to teacher complaints by suggesting that if they thought their challenges were too difficult then they should move to another school system. She is willing to lose some good teachers if there are greater gains for students. She is comfortable with standardized tests as a measure of proficiency. All her schools have metal detectors and all students must go through them. And she supported a pay-for-performance pay scale. She does not buy the notion that low pay keeps people out of teaching if the pool is expanded to non-certified older candidates and second-career people.
"There is no dearth of people who want to come into teaching," she said.
Asked if there were any deal-breakers for superintendents considering a job in another district such as Memphis, she again said that the relationship between the mayor and superintendent is vital.
"I never would have taken my job without the mayoral control of that man" she said, referring to Fenty.
Other panelists seemed to be generally supportive of most but not all of Rhee's and Fenty's statements.
"Demonizing teachers' unions is not the answer," said Morial, who was mayor of New Orleans from 1994-2002. "We must improve the pipeline of people coming into teaching."
Morial called for the next president to support "universal access to quality pre-school education." And he made a point of introducing Hart, who is an attorney, president of the Memphis Urban League, and chairman of the school board -- the very institution that Rhee and Fenty say must go. Hart left the program before the end of the question period without making any public comments.
Joel Klein, who runs the New York City system with 1.1 million students, said one of his problems is a shortage of math teachers in tough neighborhoods. The achievement gap between racial groups is "breathtaking" he said. He makes principals responsible for recruiting and retaining talented teachers and community support.
"Education is the civil rights issue," he said. "We've got to get it right in education or all these other issues will not be straightened out."