Leaning "Undecided"

As the MCS referendum date nears, focus shifts to possible outcomes.

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Heading into the backstretch of the School Systems Derby, it's Undecided pulling even with Pickler Pony and Hart of Jones.

At least that's how I see it. The more I read and hear, the less I know about this big space-eater of a story. Pollsters like to talk about which way the "undecideds" are leaning. I see "ayes" and "nays" leaning "undecided."

Three weeks before early voting might begin in a Memphis referendum, Tennessee lieutenant governor Ron "Blountville Knows Best" Ramsey says not so fast. His arrogance could make merger opponents reconsider. Former mayor and superintendent Willie Herenton says it's about time Memphis came around to an idea he has been pushing in one form or another for 17 years. Perhaps, but his association with it might not help. Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash says stay the course. Mayor A C Wharton says how about that Electrolux deal?

Have you noticed ... how closing half-empty MCS schools went from an idea whose time has come to an idea nobody talks about any more?

Or that merger proponents continue to talk about a Shelby County special school district as if it could be financially independent of Memphis even though that is very unlikely, given that Memphians are a majority on the Shelby County Commission?

Or that 12 public schools in Shelby County are in no-man's-land, also known as the Memphis annexation area, and nobody knows if or when they will shift from SCS to MCS? If these 12 schools and their 7,656 black students are absorbed by MCS, then SCS will lose 40 percent of its black enrollment.

Or that Cash recently tossed out some numbers from an inner-city school that look as fishy as Derrick Rose's SAT score?

As for Ramsey and Herenton: Ramsey knows nothing about MCS; Herenton has forgotten more about MCS than most of the rest of us will ever know. At Hollywood Community Center last week, he made a pitch for MCS charter surrender and reminded everyone that in 1993 he suggested that the whole city surrender its charter because, "I did not want my city of Memphis to become another Detroit." Over the next 15 years, Herenton pitched consolidation in one form or another at least a half-dozen times.

No urgency, no action. Ideals are not the same as outcomes. The most complete analysis of possible outcomes is a 2008 University of Memphis study. There are two big "ifs." One is how much territory and how many of those 12 schools in Southwind, Cordova, and northwest Shelby County Memphis takes over. The other big "if" is how schools are funded and whose taxes go up and down. State funding is a given. So is county funding, under current law. Special school districts like Memphis and, perhaps, Shelby County can impose an additional property tax.

In the worst case for Memphis and best case for the suburbs, county government would stop using property taxes to fund schools, and each district would fund itself. In that case, the imbalance of Memphis and suburban taxes would get even more out of whack.

Finally, there is the story of the remarkable improvements in achievement scores and the graduation rate at Booker T. Washington High School. Cash said BTW achieved a graduation rate of 82 percent and outperformed Central High School in reading and math and is "within a couple points of White Station High School."

The inner-city school lost enrollment when the neighboring housing projects were torn down. By 2005, it had fewer than 700 students and a graduation rate of 52 percent. From 2005 to 2009, its graduation rate ranged from 52 percent to 60 percent. But in 2010, the rate soared 22 points. No other city high school has improved so much so fast. Statistical outliers like that are usually due to a change of population. BTW went from 629 students in 2009 to 549 last year. We can assume it wasn't the top students who left.

On the Tennessee Report Card, BTW does outscore Central in the percentage of students achieving proficiency in math, 52 percent to 46 percent. But Central and White Station, optional schools with more than 1,700 students each, score much higher in every other category. White Station has an average ACT composite score of 23 compared to 14 for BTW.

My point is not to beat up on BTW. Comparing it to an optional school is unfair. My point is that dramatic success stories must be verifiable and replicable. This one isn't.

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