Nothing connects people to a community like public schools. That connection took a huge hit in 1973 from court-ordered busing, and I don't think Memphis has ever really recovered.
Memphis City Schools lost 28,500 white students in one year, many to private schools. A racially balanced system with 148,000 students became a de-facto segregated system with 100,000 students, give or take a few thousand, today.
Shelby County Schools went from 17,000 students after Memphis annexed Raleigh in 1975 to more than 47,000 students today. The more recent beneficiary of Memphis flight is DeSoto County, where enrollment has increased from 23,000 to 31,000-plus in eight years.
Bill and Melinda Gates grants and other foundation funds and moral support are fine, but nothing connects you to a big school system like eating the cooking. The time invested in pride, anguish, transportation, car pools, booster club meetings, sports, field trips, and PTA is life changing. Plus, over 12 years, public school saves you $100,000 to $200,000 per kid, which makes those high Memphis property taxes bearable.
Selling Memphis City Schools to people in Memphis and Shelby County who don't use them but pay for them with their property taxes is a hard sell. Which is why it is so important for MCS to honestly and openly report its enrollment, which is the basis for most of its funding. MCS is losing the support of people who live in Memphis but no longer eat the public school cooking or never ate it at all.
People of good will want everyone's children to have a decent education, but they don't want to be billed for phantoms. School enrollment should not be like pegging attendance at Glenn Beck's rally or a sports event "packed" with no-shows. Counting kids in a big district is complicated but not impossible. FedEx counts millions of packages, stores count SKUs, and the Census Bureau counts us.
Prompted by the $57 million in court-ordered back payments to MCS, the Memphis City Council, which has to fund the schools, is taking a hard look at enrollment. The early estimates have ranged from 92,000 to 120,000. In other words, as many as 28,000 students could be "tardy." If they are, instead, phantoms, it's a difference of about $300 million in state and local funding, at the going rate of $10,300 per student.
Here's a summary of the different enrollment numbers provided by various state and local sources:
The 2009 Tennessee Report Card says the enrollment at that time was 104,829.
The 2007 Tennessee Report Card said the enrollment then was 110,753.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals, in a January ruling that said Memphis is obligated to fund the schools an additional $57 million, said, incorrectly and without attribution, that MCS "serves approximately 112,000 students."
Two weeks ago, Superintendent Kriner Cash told the school board the enrollment in the first week of class was 92,378.
By the end of that week, an MCS spokesman had reported that the enrollment was 96,678. And Cash said that late enrollees could bring the number to 118,000 or even 120,000.
If so, where do they come from?
Private schools? Not likely. Someone who can afford private school either stays put or transfers to a city optional school and reserves a spot as early as possible and gets to school on time.
DeSoto County Schools? Again, not likely.
"I see them coming this way," says DeSoto Superintendent Milton Kuykendall. His district cracks down on illegal interlopers, requiring proof of residency such as a utility bill, mortgage statement, or car tag. About 30 percent of those who get reviewed by the residency committee get booted. Some are from Memphis. But we're not talking thousands of kids making an exodus back to Memphis.
Shelby County? Maybe. Memphis annexed Chimney Rock Elementary and part of Dexter Elementary this year, adding about 1,200 kids. But no evidence suggests the county system, with 28 new schools since 1990, is bleeding students to MCS.
"Our enrollment is pretty stable," said SCS spokesman Mike Tebbe, who estimates it will exceed 47,000 this year.
That leaves the streets. If Cash's upper estimate is correct, than as much as one-fifth of MCS enrollment doesn't believe in starting school until after Labor Day. How they expect to learn anything is a mystery.
Or else MCS is padding the numbers. Either way, MCS has some explaining to do.