Not All In This Together

The schools merger plan runs into reality this week.

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One of the explanations journalists fall back on when we are criticized for being too negative is this: Our job is to write about the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be.

I thought of that last week when the Transition Planning Commission unveiled its plan to unify the Memphis and Shelby County school systems in 2013. Heavy on the way the world ought to be, light on the way it is. Trouble's coming.

For starters, one of the TPC's guiding principles is "We are all in this together." That is not so in any meaningful sense when it comes to school choice. Shelby County residents all pay county taxes, but we send our children, dollars, and teachers to private schools, Memphis schools, suburban schools that may soon become municipal schools, optional schools, and charter schools.

The future Shelby County school system will resemble the current Memphis City Schools (84 percent economically disadvantaged compared to 38 percent in Shelby County schools) unless it has schools that families that are not disadvantaged will support with their children, not their words.

The one sense in which we really are all in this together is our declining tax base, which is predicted to be down 10 to 20 percent or more in the upcoming reappraisal. Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, a TPC member, was adamant that his colleagues should not expect any increase in county funding for schools. Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, also a TPC member, expects a decline of 8 to 10 percent in his suburb. Memphis can also expect a decline.

Whether it's Bartlett, Midtown, Germantown, or Mud Island, the name of the game is creating value in communities where people want to live. That means coming to grips with sensitive parts of the report that have to do with optional schools, college-prep schools, neighborhood schools, underutilized schools, and teacher recruitment.

Memphis needs neighborhood schools such as Peabody and Idlewild elementary schools in Midtown. It needs all-optional schools like John P. Freeman elementary school in Whitehaven, instead of optional schools within schools. Memphis surrendered its place on the most recent lists of the best high schools in America to Collierville and Houston high schools in Shelby County and all-optional high schools in Nashville, even though White Station High School had 18 National Merit semifinalists this year. Everyone knows about the White Station magnet effect. Its alumni include U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays, Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas, and the children of TPC chairman Barbara Prescott, and my own children.

But the TPC report doesn't address it head on. It recommends that the lineup for optional school spaces be replaced with a lottery. It notes that in 2011, only 10 percent of students in Memphis and Shelby County met the ACT's college readiness benchmark but says the ultimate goal of a merged system is that every student graduates ready for success in college and career. There is nothing about vocational schools. That is not real.

The report recommends that teacher compensation "be redesigned to better attract and retain effective teachers." But compensation for starting teachers in Memphis is pretty good. Teachers bail out of teaching for lots of other reasons. I recently had dinner with some 170 members of the entering teacher corps of Teach For America. The organization has done a fine job of keeping 60 percent of its members in Memphis after they fulfill their two-year commitment. But only a small minority of them work more than three years as classroom teachers in traditional Memphis schools, as opposed to working in charter schools or with some education-related organization.

This is not the way the world ought to be; it is the way it is.

The merged system faces a starting deficit of $160 million. To close it, the plan recommends that the school board "vigorously pursue" additional funds and close 21 schools by August 2013. Luttrell said county government won't help much. And MCS superintendent Kriner Cash has countered that only 12 schools should be closed over several years. It is time for school board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, who recommended the surrender of the MCS charter and loss of city funding, to step up on school closings.

The school board met Tuesday night to talk about superintendent contracts. The merger is 14 months away, so the TPC recommends naming a superintendent to lead the merger effort by the end of September. They may not be everyone's favorites, but in reality that means Cash or Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

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