Why Suburbs Will Eventually Win on Schools

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Where there's a will there's a way, and there are more ways than ever when it comes to school choice in public education.

First, there is plenty of will, as evidenced by the smashingly successful suburban referendums earlier this year. The strongest force in the universe is a parent determined to get his or her child into a good public school. The current Shelby County school system is essentially what the Memphis optional schools were a few decades ago: the public school option of choice for middle-class families and some affluent families.

The courtroom setback was a gimme for the Shelby County Commission and federal judge Samuel H. Mays. The 'burbs were sunk in the opening minutes of the trial in September when commission attorney Leo Bearman played the videotape of that legislative exchange about "Shelby County only." Attorneys for the defendants promptly objected, but the damage was done. The suburban champions were caught on tape and on Rep. G. A. Hardaway's clever hook. This was bad law, pure and simple. Mays let the defense team run on for a while about the rural county cover story, but the tape was devastating. Plain words mean what they say. His citation was the dictionary.

The pending segregation claim won't be so easy. Common sense and mathematics could doom it. There aren't enough white students in the public schools to integrate all of them. Ninety percent of Memphis public school students attend de-facto segregated schools. That won't change with unification. Most county schools have diverse student bodies. The exception is Southwind High School, with 12 white students in a student body of 1,653, and its feeder schools. That has the ingredients for an interesting segregation claim, but the federal appeals court has already overruled a Memphis federal court ruling that would have racially balanced the county schools.

The merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools is by all accounts unique in size and scale. It goes against the grain. The trend is smaller, fragmented school systems. I was surprised at just how small some big-city school systems are relative to Memphis. Nashville/Davidson County has 74,680 students. Atlanta has 59,000. Detroit has 51,674. New Orleans had 65,000 pre-Katrina and is a melting pot of charter schools and traditional schools today. St. Louis, taken over by the state five years ago and the subject of a glowing report in The Wall Street Journal this week, has just over 24,000 students.

Nashville, with the blessing of Mayor Karl Dean and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, is pushing for charter school expansion to the middle class over the opposition of the local school board. The state-run Achievement School District for failing schools is slated to grow in Memphis. The Republican-dominated state legislature is sympathetic to charters as are private donors such as the Gates Foundation. Vouchers have support. Most important, alternative schools have support from teachers and parents who are the ultimate deciders.

Finally, the dysfunctional unified school board with its core of MCS charter surrender proponents is its own worst enemy. The board, which meets Thursday, is likely to close only a handful of schools instead of the 21 closings recommended by the Transition Planning Commission. (There are 45 Memphis schools and 10 Shelby County schools with under 65 percent utilization, according to the TPC.) This will throw the budget out of whack, condemn the half-empty schools to failure or mediocrity, reduced course offerings, and limited extracurricular activities.

My sympathies and my treasure are with Memphis, but my gut tells me suburbs will get their own autonomous school systems within a few years and that this week's federal court ruling was a temporary setback. It is as inevitable as conference realignment in college sports.

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