Richard Fields, the attorney for plaintiffs in both the city and county school desegregation cases, gave his support this week to the controversial Gateway tests for graduation, charter schools, merit pay for teachers, and firing principals and teachers at failing public schools.
Fields has been a political adviser and personal attorney for Mayor Willie Herenton and is a supporter of Shelby County mayoral candidate Harold Byrd. He currently represents plaintiffs in a lawsuit that threatens to stop construction of a new county high school in Arlington.
At the age of 54, the genial champion of liberal causes in Memphis for the past 30 years seems to be moving comfortably into the mainstream. His old ally, former NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith, has left public office, and Byrd faces an uphill battle against A C Wharton for the Democratic nomination for county mayor. In a speech to the Memphis Rotary Club this week, Fields had kind words for the Hyde Family Foundation, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the daily newspaper. He took a hard line on standardized testing in contrast to black state lawmakers who have said the tests should be deferred or done away with.
"We must have the highest standards possible," Fields said. "It's unfair to students and taxpayers to lower standards. And the kids can do it."
If anything, Fields said, schools should test more, not less, provided students are being taught what they're being tested on. "It can't just be a once-a-year deal in elementary school," he said.
He encouraged the business community to set up a $100 million educational trust, part of which would be used to pay more money to teachers who agree to work in failing inner-city schools. He didn't specify an amount but noted that one well-publicized stipend, the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, is worth an extra $25,000. In the present system, teachers are paid based on years of service and level of education.
"Our leaders must tell teacher organizations that teachers should be rewarded not simply for serving time but for taking on the toughest educational challenges in high-poverty schools and succeeding," he said.
Asked if that was a dig at the teachers' union, the favorite scapegoat of Republicans, Fields said indeed it was.
He also urged local leadership to embrace high standards and accountability, "including changes in the personnel of failing schools and choice for children at those schools for transfer to more effective schools."
There were 64 Memphis public schools on the state's list of failing schools last year. In an interview, Fields said the choices should include charter schools like the ones being sponsored by the Hyde Family Foundation and county schools as well as other city public schools.
The unstated assumption of the Fields theory of public school reform is that parents and students will vote with their feet, leaving supposedly "failing" schools for better ones. In practice, this has boosted enrollment in Shelby County and DeSoto County (and private) schools, but Memphis City Schools still have 118,000 customers.
The city system has an open enrollment program as well as the optional program for high-performing students. Some of the better schools fill up quickly, but others, including one that Fields singled out for praise, Lincoln Elementary, have had space for more students.
"The parents don't know about it," Fields said. "It is up to the parents. The system has to assist the parents in making that information easily available. Whatever it takes to get them into schools producing results."
Mayor Herenton said last week he will propose freezing the boundaries of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems and creating a single source of funds that equalizes expenditures for the two school systems but provides more money for at-risk students.
"As attorney for the black plaintiffs in the Shelby County school desegregation case, this would be the minimum necessary before I could, in good conscience, approve further school construction in the Shelby County system," Fields said.
County students currently get a lower per-pupil expenditure than city students ($5,669 vs. $6,850). Was Fields therefore suggesting a big new expenditure on the county schools? He acknowledged that that would be one result, but he also wants at-risk city schools to get more money -- but for instruction, not construction.
"If the county wants to build schools then the city schools have to have a greater instructional budget," he said. "We have talked about it for years. Now it is time to cut the deal."
In the Arlington case, Fields and his clients have announced they will go to federal court unless the county submits something to their liking on school funding. Outgoing county superintendent James Mitchell has some hot-button issues of his own: overcrowded county schools, especially in the Cordova area, where 67 portable classrooms were in use last year.
"The education of these children cannot wait," Mitchell wrote in a strongly worded letter to Mayor Jim Rout last summer.
Add up all the must-haves -- merit pay for inner-city teachers, $1,181 per county student to equalize expenditures, an unspecified amount for instruction of at-risk city students, new county schools to ease overcrowding, expanded Head Start programs -- and a $100 million education trust fund doesn't look like it will go far without some tax increases to back it up.