Tuesday, November 13, 2012

World-Class Crack-Up

Voters don’t buy the rhetoric of creating a new school system.

Posted By on Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 5:35 PM

So much for the world-class unified school system.

By a 69-31 margin, voters put the final nail in that DOA concept last week, defeating a referendum that would have increased the sales tax to provide more money for schools.

Just over 250,000 votes were cast on the referendum, and Memphis was disproportionately represented, because suburban municipalities that approved a sales tax increase in November were excluded. The margin was all the more telling when you consider that Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett passed their tax bump in August by margins of at least 75-25.

Another half-penny on the sales tax, by itself, won't pay for new suburban systems or universal pre-kindergarten. But those things won't happen without additional revenue. The suburbs acknowledged that, and the majority of Memphis voters did not. In a sales campaign, backers of the countywide increase, including Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the NAACP (but not Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell), pitched half of it as a way to fund pre-K programs. Without breaking down the math, this was, in other words, spun as a vote for more funding for public schools. Voters did not say "no." They said "hell no."

One of the backers, city councilman Shea Flinn, said he would not rule out pushing for a Memphis-only referendum in 2013. Better focus, better sales pitch, bigger alliance, yadda yadda. More to the point, special elections get a tiny turnout compared to a presidential election, so, in effect, another referendum would be gaming the system.

Instead, backers of the failed referendum, myself included, have to acknowledge the obvious. A broad sampling of Memphians, in addition to that huge majority of suburbanites, don't buy the notion of a world-class Memphis public school system, much less a unified Memphis and Shelby County school system. A world-class crack-up is more like it. Consider what has happened in the last year or two.

The suburbs want separate school systems and school boards, if not in 2013 then in 2014. Most of the suburban members of the joint city and county school board have no intention of remaining in a unified system.

The Memphis members of the unified school board and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association (MEA) want all the autonomy, perks, power, and jobs they had before the 2011 merger, plus universal pre-K. At the last school board meeting, MEA passed out an 11-page, point-by-point critique of the TPC recommendations. The groups are miles apart.

Among other things, the union says "MCS has a school closing policy that has worked effectively," and it opposes displacing current teachers with newcomers, giving principals the power to fire tenured teachers, and basing teacher pay on merit instead of academic degrees and experience.

The Transition Planning Commission recommended that a superintendent for the future unified system be hired this fall. The school board cannot even agree on where or how to search for one.

The Tennessee Department of Education and Commissioner Kevin Huffman want to expand charter schools and the Alternative School District, which operate apart from the current Memphis system and unified school board. The vast majority of the young college graduates who came to Memphis with Teach For America as change agents and stayed in public education in Memphis after their two-year commitment are working in charter schools or the Achievement School District.

Parents of students in Memphis optional schools and the CLUE program have made it clear at school board meetings that they will only stay in the system if those programs are preserved.

Depending on how the federal court decides the constitutional questions about municipal school systems, by the start of the 2013 or 2014 school year this is what we are looking at: a unified system with fewer than 100,000 students; an expanding state-run Achievement School District with its own superintendent and 15 or more schools; an expanding charter school network with 30 or more schools; and five or six suburban systems with their own school boards and superintendents and 20,000 or more students in all.

There may be some world-class schools in that mix, but to call it a world-class system is delusional. My guess is that if a referendum were held to undo the 2011 MCS charter surrender and put the toothpaste back in the tube, it would pass in both the county and the city, by a margin of about 69-31.

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