Herenton's Last Hurrah

After years of thinking big, he's think small on schools.

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Willie Herenton has some un-finished business.

Not in politics, but in public schools. Herenton is going back to the future. He has applied to open seven charter schools in Memphis and two more in Shelby County outside of Memphis under the name "W.E.B. DuBois Consortium of Charter Schools."

"This is the last hurrah for me," he said, stopping by the Flyer's offices with a stack of handouts and an old picture of himself standing outside his childhood home next to an alley. "Education is my passion. There is no way I would have come out of this alley had I not been successful in education."

He said he is not making a power play. The federal grants he will seek require a minimum of eight schools. The man who was once superintendent of a system with 170 schools and 120,000 students wants to start over with about 1,400 students and shared space in underused schools, including his alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School, and Manassas High School.

"I want to emphasize that I am not talking about nine stand-alone schools or opening them all at once," he said.

Aside from the fact that it sounds like John Calipari signing on as an assistant to Josh Pastner, Herenton makes a lot of sense. If approved in the next 60 days, some of his charters would open in 2012, but the rest might not be ready for two more years or longer. And, really, how can this application not be approved? Is someone going to say, "Uh, well, sir, these are interesting ideas but you need some real-world experience." I don't think so.

Football coaches talk about players on the other team who are so important that everyone must know where they are on the field all the time. In public education, Herenton, remarkably fit at 71, is such a player. And if the haters in the suburbs look closely, they might find that in a lot of ways Herenton is on their side this time.

The next two years are going to be all about restructuring public schools in Shelby County. The pendulum is going to swing away a bit from serving the underachievers to serving the overachievers. How do you keep them in the new system? How do you keep physics at Ridgeway and Houston, A.P. calculus at Whitehaven and Arlington, National Merit Scholars at White Station?

Herenton answered that, at some risk, 32 years ago when he helped create optional schools. And he made no bones about it; he was doing it to keep white kids in the Memphis City Schools. A white superintendent couldn't have said that. Optional schools survived, and Herenton's granddaughters attend them. But there are only 7,000 whites in the system. Shelby County schools are, effectively, the new optional schools, and they are more racially diverse than city schools.

W.E.B. DuBois was a Harvard-educated intellectual who talked of cultivating the "talented tenth" of the black population. But Herenton's schools would take all comers.

"I've got to look at a kid from the slums differently," he said. "I see that kid as someone who can do what I could do." He is wary of reforms like Teach For America that throw newbies into city schools. "This ain't no laboratory to me," he said.

Charter schools are independent public schools that draw their students from the poor part of the population and their teachers and staff from here, there, and everywhere. They are the darlings of Wall Street Journal Republicans and some Democrats. Herenton said he was all for busting up the school system to innovation way back in 1989 when he was superintendent, and he has the newspaper clippings to prove it.

"I was ahead of my time," he said. "The difference is that now there is funding."

Charter schools get about $7,500 per pupil in state and local funding. Their gain is some other school's loss. Unless they attract outsiders, their growth will reduce funding and create more unused space in a city system already faced with closing schools. Herenton has often said school consolidation was inevitable.

"We lost the opportunity for greatness and efficiency 20 years ago," he said. "This merger will not yield the same results, but it is still a good thing."

He predicts that suburban charter schools will prove more financially feasible than separate municipal school systems. Integrated schools are the result in any case, given the county's population and trends. And he thinks tax-supported vouchers for private schools are coming as early as next year.

This will be a decade of big change, and Willie Herenton wants in.

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