Pass or fail, post-referendum Memphis is going to have a hard slog. We had to have this discussion about schools, but in the short run, it united the suburbs and divided thoughtful people in the city.
There will not be a mandate. The vote will be split and the turnout will be low. A majority of the Memphis City Schools board now opposes charter surrender, with the addition of new board member Sara Lewis. So did Superintendent Kriner Cash.
The Memphis City Council voted unanimously to support the board's surrender vote, but that vote masked underlying cracks. The council's white members wanted to go slow and negotiate. And Councilwoman Wanda Halbert, an African-American single mother, voted "aye" only to show solidarity with Memphis against actions by the General Assembly in Nashville. If the referendum fails, "it will be a little scary," she said. If it passes, county schools will be "forced to merge rather than choosing to."
Parents of students in the city and county systems are stirred up. There will be a flight to stability. The best-performing city and county schools will get better, and the worst will get worse. That's the price of open enrollment, school choice, and optional schools.
The charter schools in Memphis will attract motivated students and parents. They are already pulling in young teachers from Teach For America who are leaving MCS, veteran teachers and administrators looking for a second career, and local and national philanthropists. They will add more schools, more grades in each school, and more students in each grade. Charters have a built-in marketing machine in the documentary movie Waiting for Superman. Charters are fundamental to that particular view of school reform, and Memphis is ground zero in Tennessee.
There will be a brawl in Memphis over closing low-enrollment schools. That was bubbling up last year before charter surrender moved to the front burner. It can't be put off forever. The passion for "saving neighborhood schools" will be much greater than the tepid enthusiasm for merging systems.
A beneficial side effect of that gut-wrenching decision will be a demand for honest and accurate numbers. MCS and SCS have every incentive to maximize attendance, which is tied to funding, and graduation rate, which indicates performance. Tennessee's new governor, Bill Haslam, and his new commissioner of education, Kevin Huffman (Teach For America's executive vice president of public affairs), won't put up with shenanigans.
"With the First to the Top legislation and the Race to the Top awards, we as a state have an opportunity to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and Kevin is the person to make that a reality," Haslam said recently.
Look for Tennessee to imitate USA Today's investigation of standardized test scores.
The Memphis and Shelby County school systems will settle their long-standing boundary dispute, which was one of the things at the heart of this debate. Southwind High School, operated by the county but built by the city and county, will force the issue. Look for MCS to take it over, along with its feeder schools. Southwind High School is nearly all black, and the majority-white county system is inviting a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit if it holds on to it.
Kriner Cash can't stay in limbo. He is the MCS board's only employee. The board voted itself out of existence. Cash has no chance of being superintendent of a merged system. He has every right to demand a buyout or a contract extension from MCS or its successor. "For a long time, the community has been saying they want him gone," said Halbert, a former school board member. "They may get their wish."
Finally, the rhetoric will have to change. Some scholars and preachers who know better attempted to rally support to the merger side by saying schools are "separate but unequal," that the 70 percent of children in Shelby County who attend Memphis schools are uniformly poor economically and that this is "a civil rights issue." Compared to the Sixties, it is no such thing.
This is a losing game and a dead end. There are black elected officials, ministers, and activists on both sides of this issue. Memphis has a substantial black middle class as well as a substantial underclass. MCS has scores of relatively new, well-equipped schools. The Shelby County school system is more than 40 percent minority and will probably be majority-minority soon.
If nothing else, the charter debate and those forums all over town made this clear. The sooner we admit it, the better off we'll be.