Schools: The Meeting and the Myths



Dr. Jeff Warren
As six-hour meetings go, this one wasn't bad.

An important subject seriously discussed, good audience participation, and a school board and superintendent who were, with a couple of exceptions, on their game.

Here's more.

The myth: This is forced busing revisted. Nobody is proposing 1970s-style busing to remix city and county schools. That goes for Memphis board members and Shelby County board members, and for the city council and county commission for that matter. And, of course, the federal courts. Not sure where Dr. Jeff Warren is coming from when he warns of public-school flight on the scale of the 30,000+ who bailed in 1973-1974. Or Keith Williams of the MEA who suggested charter surrender would lead to "bedlam." DeSoto County has been a popular option for years, but Fayette and Tipton County are not going to draw many kids from Collierville or Germantown. And there are so many more choices now with open enrollment, optional schools, charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools.

The other myth: This is a civil rights moment on the order of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s. I don't see that either. Really bad history. Just because Shelby County schools, with an exception or three, are majority white does not mean the administration is racist. Self segregation is not Fifties segregation. Every school in that system has black kids and black teachers. To compare this to the school desegregation of the 1960s, as some speakers at Monday's meeting did, is ridiculous. Memphis has experienced resegregation common to many a major metro.

Props to . . . Kriner Cash for letting it rip . . . David Pickler for standing there and taking it . . . Tomeka Hart for a good closing argument and good rebuttals . . . Attorney Dorsey Hopson for gently reminding evangelizing Sharon Webb that this was a public meeting . . . Betty Mallott for acknowledging she had changed her mind a couple times . . . Freda Williams for presiding with a calm hand . . . Dr. Jeff Warren for a strong prescription even if the patient didn't take it . . . Kenneth Whalum for telling it like it is on "Politics 101" . . . the citizen speaker whose name I did not catch who brought up the "analysis-paralysis" argument . . . the young Turks of Stand For Children who showed up in t-shirts, spoke well, and stayed until midnight.

Yawns to . . . mayors Wharton and Luttrell whose "stop and look at all the consequences" remarks seemed flat and uninspired as well as ignorant of the past efforts to do just that . . . Sharon Webb and her story about baby Moses . . . Hart and her repeated references to "our babies" even though our children are as old as 18 . . . the ministers who said prayer is the answer . . . Dwight Montgomery who said SCLC represents "hundreds of thousands of members" here and 7,000 teachers who are against surrender of the charter. How does anyone know?

"Let the people decide" is often a cop-out, but this time it feels right. That is if the referendum actually happens. There are some serious hurdles. Legal challenges. A motion to reconsider by incoming board member Sara Lewis, an opponent of charter surrender and therefore a potential fifth vote for the nays. Quick counterstrikes by the Shelby County board of education and the Tennessee General Assembly. Supposing a referendum makes it to the ballot in February or March, it would stir things up in interesting ways — young activists, ministers, the MEA opposing, Sidney Chism and G. A. Hardaway supporting, parents of kids in MCS with a stake, and get-out-the-vote groups that should be appalled by the 3-4% turnout in school board races.

They've got a point: "This is a political issue, not a legal issue." — Dorsey Hopson
"This is a fear-induced resolution." — Jeff Warren
"Commissioner Warren and I rarely agree on anything, but I honor his effort to slow this train down." — Kenneth Whalum
"I am almost certain that if we had run on the position of surrendering the charter we would have been defeated." — Whalum
"Nobody cried chaos when the legislature came within one vote of allowing a special school district last year." — Tomeka Hart
"We have to operationalize your decision." — Kriner Cash

Biased media caveat: Cash is right about MCS getting more bad publicity than SCS, right about a handful of awful test scores bringing down generally good scores at some schools, and right about the uncertain fate of reforms he has pushed. But he's also about as isolated from the press as you can get, preferring staged situations instead, and his communications office is unresponsive to the point of insisting on Freedom of Information requests for basic information. Also, Hart nailed him about Shelby County's past record. She was on board before he was.

Bad sausage-making moment: Warren's attempt to put his resolution into suitable language. Sounded like me trying to explain a medical procedure.

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