The current brouhaha over city and county schools can be better understood by going back about 40 years.
By 1970, school integration had been the law of the land for 16 years, thanks to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. But in the South, integration "with all deliberate speed" meant "slow." Memphis began integrating schools one grade at a time in 1961, but housing patterns and a liberal school transfer policy confined most students to de facto segregated schools.
Memphis City Schools reached an all-time high of 148,015 students in 1970. The black-white ratio was 52 percent/48 percent. The next year, two things happened: The U.S. Supreme Court approved busing as a desegregation tool, and voters rejected consolidation of city and county governments.
Two years later, all hell broke loose. U.S. district judge Robert McRae ordered Plan A, which was designed to bus 13,789 students to new schools. About 8,000 white students left the city system. Residents of Frayser buried a school bus. Private religious schools popped up. Determined that there not be a succession of Plans B, C, D, and so on, McRae ordered up Plan Z, which called for busing 39,904 students. Another 20,525 white students left the system, and an untold number fell through the cracks or avoided busing by temporarily moving in with friends or relatives.
The Memphis NAACP argued that Plan Z didn't go far enough, but the Supreme Court upheld it and refused to hear an appeal seeking further desegregation.
In a dissent from one of the federal court rulings, Federal Appeals Court judge Paul Weick wrote, "The average American couple who are raising their children scrape and save money to buy a home in a nice residential neighborhood near a public school. One can imagine their frustration when they find their plans have been destroyed by the judgment of federal courts."
Weick was right. After busing, the Shelby County Schools system, which had only 17,000 students in 1975, began growing to its current enrollment of about 47,000. Memphis City Schools began declining to its current enrollment of about 104,000. DeSoto County school enrollment rose to 31,000.
White enrollment in the city schools went from 48 percent to 7 percent, most of it concentrated in a half-dozen optional schools. Black enrollment in the county schools went from next to nothing to 37 percent. But if Southwind High School and its feeder schools in southeast Shelby County are absorbed by the city, as they are scheduled to be, black enrollment will fall below 10 percent because those schools are nearly all black.
The anomaly of nearly all-black schools in a 37 percent black system was not lost on U.S. district judge Bernice Donald. In 2007, she ordered the county schools to rebalance, but in 2009, she was overruled by an appellate court. The court said the school district has no duty to remedy imbalance caused by demographic factors, annexation, and "voluntary housing choices made by the public."
So school desegregation is against the law, but school self-segregation is not against the law. And self-segregation can be aided and abetted by the careful selection of school sites and the drawing of district boundaries, such as the eastern boundary of Southwind High School at Hacks Cross Road.
Southwind High is an outlier. There are black students in every county school, indeed in every private school. It is a very different world from the 1960s. The proposed Shelby County special school district would set firm boundaries but not exclude anyone from attending the school of their choice by moving around. Without a voting majority, however, there are few if any blacks on the county school board, suburban elected positions, or suburban districts on the Shelby County Commission.
The city system has a remnant of about 7,000 white students. An uncounted number of well-to-do Memphis residents with school-age children, including most of the movers and shakers, send them to private schools in Midtown, East Memphis, or Shelby County. They support the system and the growing number of charter schools with their tax dollars and, sometimes, their philanthropy but not with their children. As school board member the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. has noted, the system is awash with money, more than $1 billion a year from all sources.
Forty years after busing was approved, we have resolved the issue of school desegregation as a legal and practical matter. We have a black system getting blacker and a white system that will get whiter when it sheds its black schools. With special districts and surrendered charters, all we're talking about is who gets the bills.