Teaching Moment 

Sometimes the twain do meet, and there still can be a failure to communicate. A case in point was the Memphis City Schools board meeting Monday night, a get-together session with members of the Shelby County legislative delegation, with an eye on the General Assembly session scheduled to begin next month.

Only a handful of the legislators showed up. As state representative Johnnie Turner, one of the late arrivals, noted, many delegation members had been at committee meetings in Nashville earlier in the day and had a hard time getting back. The conversations that followed were good-willed, but the participants sometimes seemed to be on different pages.

One of the legislators on hand was Democratic state representative G.A. Hardaway, who represents an inner-city district that furnishes MCS with a goodly number of its mainly African-American student population. Hardaway right away threw a stumper at the board members, inquiring about a controversial study which purports to show that the advantages to pre-K education for students rarely last beyond the second grade.

Several board members and Superintendent Kriner Cash challenged that thesis and cited other studies showing more encouraging results. Nothing got resolved, but everyone was at least made aware of the elephant in the room — the fact that funding of pre-K education will be a chancy thing for a cash-starved state government next year, needing every bit of justification that can be mustered.  

Also present and accounted for was Republican state senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, who engaged in a dialogue of sorts with school board member Martavius Jones and others on the merits of a compromise plan designed to ease MCS concerns about a proposed special school district for county schools. The board members, still on course to consider a charter surrender that would force consolidation of city and county schools, weren't in a mood to buy in.

Nor did Kelsey fare much better with the proposal he floated for something he referred to as "equal opportunity scholarships," whereby state funds would be made available to current public-school students so as to cover tuition at charter schools, even at private schools. The bait for MCS, as Kelsey explained it, was that funding due the school system for the departing students could still be retained, minus the deduction for tuition elsewhere.

That sounded good, until a skeptical Jones challenged it, pointing out that Title I federal funds would probably be forfeited. Kelsey suggested the enabling legislation could be tailored to fix that problem. But the real quietus was applied by board member Tomeka Hart, who observed the suddenly obvious — that what Kelsey was talking about could be described by the familiar term "vouchers," something supporters of public education rarely if ever have warmed to.

Late in the conversation, the legislators and board members explored the conundrum of the sliding scales by which MCS enumerates its students for funding purposes. And they considered the theory that state rating standards may have been applied unfairly to Memphis schools for shortcomings shared with other Tennessee schools, even highly touted private ones. "We are all failing. We are all suffering," Cash said. And that everyone seemed to agree with.


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