Make the Merger Work

Unifying school systems: hard enough without refighting old battles.



"It does."

Two little words. A tweet is a tome by comparison.

Here's the context from U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays' ruling in the school systems merger case:

"Memphis residents are not represented on the Shelby County Board of Education and have not been permitted to vote for its members. The question is whether such an arrangement violates the one-person, one-vote principle. It does."

Which part of "it does" don't you understand?

So there will be a new county school board and new districts that will include Memphis. And because of the constitutional violation, it will happen sooner rather than later. And the new board will have seven members unless there is a countywide referendum to increase it to 25 members or some other number.

The new board will govern one of the 20 largest school systems in the country. When the two systems are merged in 2013, it will possibly have 150,000 students, although that number, which is the approximate sum of the current enrollments, is likely to be lower. There will be some flight to the perceived stability of private, charter, or DeSoto County schools, and suburbs such as Germantown might start their own systems. I'd bet on it. The most powerful force in the universe is a parent determined to get their kid into a good school.

The next two years are going to be messy. Who's in charge? Well, the future county school board, even before it is created, is going to be a player, starting now. The existing Memphis and Shelby County school boards are charged with the "wind down" of their separate systems as well as the education of their current students for two more years and the transition to a combined system. The Norris-Todd state law requires the appointment of a 21-member transition planning team. Current school board members will appoint 10 of the 21 transition planners and could run for seats on the new board. I bet some of them will.

But the result doesn't have to be a mess. A successful merger will depend on these things:

Don't fight last year's battles. School consolidation is going to happen. Accept the ruling of Judge Mays. This means no appeal from the Shelby County school board or the "no surrender" people on the Memphis board. If you can't accept the ruling, fine, get off. Support for a consolidated system should be a requirement of appointees to the 21-member transition team. As for Memphis, the double taxation for schools will last two more years. And the city and MCS would be smart to settle the $57 million in back pay and get that issue out of court and off the table.

Don't fight the last century's battles. Memphis and Shelby County have been through desegregation and resegregation. There are about 32,800 white kids in the two systems. The unified system will be majority black (unlike Hamilton County and Chattanooga, the most recent schools merger in Tennessee). There will be several all-black schools. Trying to make each school or each subdistrict reflect the overall racial profile of the merged system will drive more students out of the system. We tried that in the 1970s.

The merged system will have a lot of new school buildings, from the inner city to the suburbs. This is the positive result of the funding formula for school construction and capital improvements. Twenty years ago the big schools issue was air-conditioning. We have made progress.

The merged system will have a lot of new money. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other private foundations are pouring millions of dollars into Memphis to improve the quality of teachers and administrators. That wasn't there 10 or 20 years ago.

Tennessee and Memphis are laboratories for public education. In addition to the Gates Foundation, they've made a big commitment to Teach For America in Memphis, Nashville, and the Department of Education.

We're learning from mistakes. Tennessee and other states are getting a waiver on No Child Left Behind. The emphasis on drill-and-kill testing will be relaxed, not that there won't be more pain.

The economy favors public schools with good reputations. It costs $10,000 or more per kid per year for private school. Scholarships will draw some poor and middle-class kids to private schools, but space is limited.

Public schools must sell themselves as the option of choice. They won't hold everyone who's there today, but with leadership and good teachers, the merger can work.

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