Rethinking Education 

It was not quite a year ago that a modest rebellion was mounted in the Tennessee General Assembly against the imposition of a 42-cent increase in the state tobacco tax, earmarked for education. The tax, pushed by Governor Phil Bredesen, went through but not without

opposition from some unexpected sources. Two of the holdouts were Shelby County Democrats Larry Turner and Mike Kernell, both House members of the governor's own party but both determined to route the proceeds of the tax to health care. The idea was that money spent that way would have a more measurable effect than it would if channeled, as was finally the case, into the relatively amorphous agenda of the state's Basic Education Plan.

This mini-rebellion might be regarded as the first faint sign of a political skepticism toward educational log-rolling that has since grown to heretical proportions. For generations, no cow has been more sacred than that of public education, a fact highlighted by the somewhat desperate 2001 proposal by former governor Don Sundquist for a state "reading program" as a backdoor means of getting the state income tax he felt the times required.

Now the revolt against indiscriminant educational spending has moved onto the agendas of cash-strapped local governments. While the Shelby County Commission listened sympathetically on Monday to county schools representatives who sought increased funding, mainly for mandated increases in teacher salaries, the commission, which has been deliberating on serious reductions in county government itself, put off a decision. Moreover, even commissioners who have favored educational spending in the past expressed resentment of the two local school districts' support of what some called an "end run" in the legislature, where a bill to strengthen existing "Maintenance of Effort" legislation is pending. That legislation, if successful, would counteract the commission's efforts, beginning last year, to curtail new capital construction.

The City Council, meanwhile, is considering the unprecedented step of withholding some or all of the almost $100 million it annually contributes to Memphis City Schools. While such a step would have seismic consequences on the MCS budget, it would be a catalyst toward the long-overdue consideration of single-source funding for the city and county schools and other administrative changes sought by a study headed a decade ago by Memphis businessman Russell Gwatney.

What Gwatney foresaw, even in rosier economic times, was the financial crunch that now afflicts both city and county schools, and he provided a recipe that involved both greater collaboration between the two local school systems and greater autonomy for each in responsibility for capital construction.

Perhaps it is time, as Tom Jones of the "Smart City" blog has suggested, to dust off that proposal. Perhaps it is time for new and even more innovative remedies. In any case, it seems certain that, at a time when property taxes have maxed out and declining property values are destined to result in shrunken revenues, something or somebody has to give — besides the already overburdened taxpayer.


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