At Monday night's momentous Memphis City Schools board meeting, the Rev. Kenneth Whalum asked a pointed question: "Why aren't white people sending their kids to Memphis public schools?"
As a white person who has sent two children and two stepchildren to Memphis City Schools, I feel qualified to at least offer an opinion. Choosing a school for their children for most Memphians — black, white, or brown — hinges on cost, locality, quality of education, and diversity. The best option for most of us would be a neighborhood public school offering free quality education and a racially and economically diverse population of kids.
I know lots of middle-class folks who send their children to Midtown public schools such as Snowden Elementary and Middle, Peabody Elementary, Idlewild Elementary, and Central High School. My 14-year-old stepson attended Idlewild Elementary for four years, and we were pleased with his experience there. My son, daughter, and stepdaughter graduated from MCS high schools.
That said, I've also sent some of my children to parochial school and private schools, because at various stages of their education, we felt the local public school wasn't the best option. I've also put my children in MCS optional schools outside my neighborhood.
Poor folks don't have the luxury of making such decisions. They have to take the local, free education. A school in a neighborhood that is 95 percent poor and black is going to have a poor and black student body. It's not racism. It's an economic issue.
If the Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools somehow become consolidated, it won't measurably affect individual schools. Schools in racially diverse jurisdictions will have racially diverse schools. Schools in areas that aren't diverse, won't be diverse. The sky won't fall either way. We can't control where people live. We can strive to provide an equal, quality education for all our children, rich and poor, black and white. In this case, a rising tide will lift all hopes.
But getting to that place will be a long, painful struggle, I fear. Tearing down the artificial boundaries that have long separated us will not be easy. Cool heads need to prevail in the coming weeks. We need to remember it's not just "about the children." It's about all of us. We can make history and begin to heal decades-old wounds, if we try.