Public School Escape Hatches

Posted by John Branston on Fri, Dec 2, 2011 at 1:05 PM

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What do a star football player at St. George's private school, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, and former mayor Willie Herenton have in common?

They're all threats to the future consolidated Memphis and Shelby County public school system, which is going to be riddled with escape hatches that could potentially draw away tens of thousands of students and the state dollars that go with them.

Omar Williams, pictured in The Commercial Appeal today, is a running back at St. George's who transferred from Manassas High School. He is one of several black athletes who have gone from Memphis public schools to private schools such as St. George's, Briarcrest, and MUS. The best known include Elliot Williams, who went to St. George's before playing basketball at Duke and Memphis, and Michael Oher, who went to Briarcrest before starring at Ole Miss and in the NFL. Competitive private schools welcome such student athletes — and some of their non-jock classmates — for reasons of altruism, diversity, and winning championships. Recruiting is not just for colleges. Look at all the University of Memphis basketball players who went to private academies whose specialty is prepping the cream of the crop for careers at Division 1 powerhouse schools and, perhaps, the NBA. I'm surprised Memphis doesn't have such an "academy" for jocks right here at home already.

Keith McDonald is the most prominent no-ifs-ands-or-buts-about-it proponent of separate suburban school systems. Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, and Millington are all studying the prospects. That represents a potential loss of tens of thousands of students to the consolidated Shelby County system two years from now.

Charter schools are a third escape hatch. The joint school board this week denied new applications, but the board and MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash seem to have a different point of view than Education Commissioner Huffman. See Jackson Baker's blog post here.

Herenton is one of the applicants for multiple charter schools. He told me Friday he has appealed the denial of his application to the state treasurer's office, which will look at the impact on finances. A decision is expected in a month. If the treasurer rejects the school board's claim that charters adversely effect budgets, then Herenton will appeal to the education commissioner, who could direct the school board to approve the application.

"The unified board has not adequately read the future of the Memphis and Shelby county public school system," Herenton said. "They have not accepted that the educational arena is going to change even more dramatically n the future. MCS has been a colossal failure in terms of educating the children in the inner city and in poverty. Parents, students and teachers deserve the opportunity to participate in a variety of programs."

Herenton is a former MCS superintendent. Asked what he would do today if he was in Kriner Cash's shoes, he said "if educators and board members are really concerned about improving academics, then they shouldn’t care who is given leadership. They have to put children first, but they have put their own interests first."

Cash and board members say they are just trying to operate within their budget, and they have to employ roughly the same number of people and cover the same overhead, at least in the short run, despite the influx and outflow of students.

They're fighting on multiple fronts. It sometimes looks like a rearguard action because charters have by and large avoided close scrutiny and get pretty good press in Memphis and Nashville.

But setting up a new school much less a new system is hard and expensive. Sooner or later, MCS/SCS will have to stop playing defense and go on offense — in other words, make the positive case for a big unified school system with veteran teachers, principals, coaches, marching bands, extracurricular activities, no tuition, proud tradition, bus routes, neighborhood identity, stability, whatever. The appeal will have to be "why you should choose us" not "why you should not be allowed to leave us."

Once deregulation begins, there is no stopping it. There is a very good chance that the future consolidated system could become the current MCS system, minus hundreds if not thousands of its most athletic, college-bound, and motivated students and parents. That's the thing about escape hatches.

Comments (12)

Showing 1-12 of 12

Yes, wouldn't that be lovely - adding all the impoverished students living outside municipal boundaries who can't afford or aren't talented enough to go elsewhere.

Sports corrupted the university system years ago and now it has spread to the secondary school system as well. It's pure exploitation. Pathetic. We need to get the sports out of the schools and let it stand on its own within municipal systems and pro-level affiliated programs.

Yeah, like that will ever happen.

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Posted by Jeff on 12/02/2011 at 2:21 PM

Just another classic example of how the GOP likes to socialize risk and privatize profit. No one cares if these charter schools begin to pop up all over the county. If they can make it and do a good job of attracting and educating kids, so be it. But they should have to compete with all the other private schools, religious and otherwise. There is NO reason tax dollars should go to private enterprises such as these. Another case of hypocrisy by those who favor "small government," except when they don't.

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Posted by BruceVanWyngarden on 12/02/2011 at 3:05 PM

@Bruce: Charters obviously need to be integrated in a smart way as part of a larger district plan. Slowing down rapid charter adoption without a coherent district-wide plan is a good idea. But once you have that vision, and you integrate them strategically, the innovation they can bring is a good thing. I think the experience in New Orleans is encouraging, and hopefully could lead to the kind of dramatic change needed in Memphis schools. This article does a good job recapping: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2010/0829/After-Katrina-how-charter-schools-helped-recast-New-Orleans-education

But again, you have to look at it as a fundamental reconstruction of the entire system. Charter schools by their nature disrupt traditional neighborhood schools. If you simply add more and more of them, without planning, it will all implode. Considering how greatly the traditional model has failed here, I'm willing to take a risk on this type of structural change, provided it is implemented as part of a thoughtful strategic plan.

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Posted by John Black on 12/02/2011 at 7:55 PM

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the state education commish supports something that would decimate public (but especially Memphis' public) schools. Remember, he was part of the rear-guard assault mounted by Norris et al. on the MCS charter surrender. This is just one more front in that war.

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Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 12/02/2011 at 11:44 PM

One big problem with charter schools is that they don't have to accept everyone as do the public schools. The "per student" cost is not a true estimate of the cost of education. As a result, charters siphon public funds from special needs children (who require more resources) and refuse to admit the hard core discipline problems.

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Posted by OldHippieChick on 12/03/2011 at 12:10 AM

John, charter supports always talk about innovation. But the only innovation I see is that they get to be selective about who they admit (e.g., they have a very low percentage of students receiving special education services), they build their schools one grade at a time (e.g., start with 6th grade this year, add 7th grade next year, etc), they have the ability to get rid of students with behavior problems much more easily than neighborhood schools, and they are able to pressure students with academic struggles to find another school. These are things that cannot be brought to scale.

Charters also have longer school-days, Saturday school, and a longer school-year. This things could be replicated, but it would take a lot more funding than our schools currently receive.

Finally, read this article on NOLA's charters and tell me if you still think Memphis should use them as an example: goo.gl/ZuOwh.

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Posted by firstresponses on 12/03/2011 at 7:03 AM

M_A, Commissioner Huffman has only been on the job for a few months, so he could not have done anything with Norris-Todd.

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Posted by firstresponses on 12/03/2011 at 7:08 AM

No one is more self- interested ( in himself) than Willie Herenton. We all know the deal with that guy.

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Posted by True on 12/03/2011 at 9:52 AM

fr: then it was his predecessor; in any event, Haslam's education guy, who worked hand in glove with Norris (as did Haslam) to impede, if not totally derail, the charter surrender.

By the way, Willie Herenton accusing anyone else of putting their own interests first, as he is quoted in this piece, is some kind of a cruel joke. His applications to become a charter school "czar" aren't exactly what anyone would call altruistic.

Charter schools, if allowed to flourish, will improve public education to death.

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Posted by M_Awesomeberg on 12/03/2011 at 10:00 AM

M_A: I think that's the point. Public education dies, for all except the lowest of the low, while private companies profit off everyone else.

It's really a shame that charters don't do mush better than to do. They have a different set of rules than regular neighborhood schools. That's not an excuse for regular school, as our school is putting the charter out of business. But it's undeniable that charters have a built-in advantage. The can be selective in admissions and they can get rid of students struggling with academics and/or behavior. It's telling, to me, that they aren't doing better than they are.

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Posted by firstresponses on 12/05/2011 at 9:40 PM

You are all wrong. Charter schools do not select students. They accept students based on Tn rules: students must apply for free lunch program, be behind on Tcap scores, and/or be assigned to a failing middle school. They apply and are then placed into a lottery. No one has a way to decide which students among those get accepted. And for the ones who get accepted based on the non-preferential lottery, the per-pupil funding is the same as any other public school, siphoning no more funding than any other public school. And there is no way charter schools can distinguish accepting special needs children from non-special needs children. They just work hard every day to raise the extra money to provide ALL the children the best possible education they can. Why would anyone want to deny a child this opportunity?

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Posted by Whatever on 12/10/2011 at 11:17 AM

Here's an idea. Instead of complaining about charter schools, work hard to improve MCS/SCS ability to compete with them. Give students a reason to want to stay in the MCS/SCS system. The first step would be to slash the non-classroom costs to the bear minimum. Stop paying the the Superintendent $275K. Stop paying the school board any more than the minimum. Merge the financial, purchasing, HR, and plant departments into the city reducing salaries and overhead costs. Take all those savings and pour back into the classroom.

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Posted by Comanche Joe on 01/26/2012 at 8:55 AM
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