Is It Worth It?



The slogans and yard signs have come out. "If You Don't Know Vote No." And "Unity."

I think the "don't know" one is more effective. The anti-merger side has the easier job. Lots of doubts. The fact is nobody knows the answer to a dozen big questions. The pro-merger side has to choose between the symbolic feel-good message — unity — or the financial message — lower taxes — which is not at all certain.

Slogans aside, another way to look at the schools referendum is to ask this question: Is it worth it?

To answer that, we need to look at what can be changed and what cannot be changed by surrendering the MCS charter and merging the city and county school systems. And then we need to ask if the things that can be changed are more likely to be changed with or without a merger.

First, here's what I think can be changed:

The discussion. In 29 years in Memphis, I have never seen anything close to this much interest, publicity, serious discussion, and mixed alliances as I have seen in the last four months on the schools issue.

The tax imbalance between Memphis and the suburbs. Sooner or later Memphis will go bankrupt if a shrinking tax base has to support more services, and residents can opt to live in a neighboring suburb where the taxes are 20-40 percent less. It may be a slow death, but I don't think this can be avoided without consolidation.

School system and school district boundary lines can be redrawn. It's been done many times already, it just has not been implemented.

School board membership can change and the size of the board can be increased and the district lines can be redrawn.

Superintendents can be changed, just like coaches. Buyouts and hurt feelings come with the territory. If you are a Kriner Cash fan, vote "no" on school consolidation. Otherwise he's out of here within a year or so.

Openness and accurate, audited numbers. Taxpayers should not have to pay for phantoms. Audit the enrollment and the graduation rate, and the academic outliers. No shenanigans.

The acceptance of an ACT average score of 14, 15, 16, or 17, which is what most city high schools produce. A high school that boasts of increasing its graduation rate with graduates who make a 15 on the ACT— six points below the state average — is cheating those students and setting them up for failure.

The "Us and Them" reporting and grading system that makes Shelby County look so much better than MCS. Blended scores are the rule in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville.

The uncertainty about what Memphians want. This is a city-only referendum. The turnout and the margin and the result will tell us something.

What can't be changed:

School choice. The choices are much broader than city schools or county schools. There are tens of thousands of kids in private schools in Shelby County and tens of thousands more in public schools in DeSoto County, Mississippi, minutes away. MCS has an open enrollment policy. And now MCS also has a couple dozen charter schools. The strongest force in the universe is a parent determined to get their kid into a good school. Boundaries are nothing.

Resegregation. There are not enough white kids in the combined city and county system — about 32,000 out of 150,000 — to have racially balanced schools. Racially unbalanced schools are a fact of life here. With a merger we might have unity in the sense of one public system instead of two, but probably not for long once municipalities set up their own systems, which I think they would do.

In-fighting on the school board. A bigger board would have fresh faces but democracy guarantees diversity and disagreement.

The suburban dominance of the state legislature. They have the numbers.

A long and difficult transition. A merger of two public school systems is not at all like a corporate merger. There are no lines of authority. No super CEO. No handpicked board. Nobody with a mandate to close schools and cut jobs.

The achievement gap between the very best schools and the worst schools. There will be and there should be a few college-prep public high schools like White Station, Houston, Collierville, and Central. That's smart policy for any school system, and it recognizes the clustering effect. It is simply not realistic to expect disadvantaged city schools to close the gap with White Station or Houston.

In summary, I think voters will be asking themselves what a merger can and cannot do, and whether some desirable results are more likely to be achieved with or without a merger. The outcome will influence what suburban residents and the courts do.

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