Opinion » Viewpoint

Handling School Funds

The voters should decide whether it’s the council, the commission, or the school board.



Forty percent of all children educated in America are educated in urban school systems similar to Memphis City Schools.

At MCS, the average child receives roughly $7,000 total for his education annually, a number inflated by the fact that we have many special-needs children who require significant amounts of money above and beyond the base. Many of these children come from single-parent homes and from severe poverty. Often their parents were children at the time they gave birth to our students.

It is interesting to note that many people feel we are spending too much for the education of our poorest and most needy children. However, when private education often costs $15,000 to $25,000 a year per student and these students come from two-parent upper-middle-class homes, with their own computers, home libraries, and parents who help them daily with their homework, how can $7,000 be considered too much for our disadvantaged MCS students? 

Part of the reason that we are having difficulty with funding our school systems is that in the state of Tennessee we have a schizophrenic funding mechanism.

In the rest of the country, in more than 81 percent of school districts, school boards set the educational tax rate. In Tennessee, that tax rate is usually set by county commissions, and, here in Memphis, by both the Shelby County Commission and the Memphis City Council. Unfortunately, all it takes is one vote of the commission or the council to take away funds that have been historically designated for education and divert them to other uses.

A recent sad example of this practice was the decision by the City Council two years ago to underfund schools, despite their 70-plus-year history of funding MCS. While most of us thought we were paying $0.82 a year of the property tax rate as an educational tax, the council took $0.47 of that and used it for operating funds for the city budget.

They took the education taxes to raise city workers' salaries and spent the rest. This was effectively the largest tax increase in the history of Memphis, done surreptitiously, using school funds.

Accordingly, I would recommend that we consider adding more information to any ballot proposal concerning funding of Memphis City Schools. If the council decides it wants to ask voters whether they want to fund MCS, they should also give the voters a chance to comment on whether they want the council and commission to be in charge of educational taxes.

Memphis City Schools is held accountable for education, but the school board isn't in charge of its funding. The board can't really be accountable for funding if other bodies use funds designated for our children for their own political agendas. So how about it, City Council? Let's let the voters decide whether they want you to be in charge of funding or, instead, give the job to the school boards that are actually doing the work in the schools.

This second-guessing by council members about what is needed to run MCS is designed to fool the public. A majority of members don't seem to care about public education. How many have their kids in MCS? Absolutely none of them do, unless you include the chairman, who had a child in a charter school. Maybe that's why it's so easy for the council to withhold school funds and at the same time point fingers at other issues to confuse the real issue. And they're betting most voters won't see through the smoke.

I'm betting that Memphis is changing. Memphis City Schools has been recognized by the Gates Foundation for our Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI) and awarded $90 million to help teachers find better ways to help kids reach the new, more difficult state standards. The state practically copied the MCS plan, and as a result, Tennessee was one of only two states to win several billion dollars in federal "Race for the Top" funds.

If the citizens of Memphis are reminded of these and our other successes, they will know there is a difference between wasting money and investing in our children's and our city's future. The major businesses in Memphis understand. That's why they are supporting TEI with their hard-earned money. Citizens should demand that the City Council finally do the same.

Jeff Warren is a Memphis family physician and a member of the Memphis School Board.

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