Tennessee state Senate majority leader Mark Norris announced this week that he would introduce legislation that would effectively put a stop to a planned vote that would give Memphis residents the option to approve a "surrender" of the Memphis City Schools charter. If city voters approved the surrender, under current law, Shelby County Schools and Memphis City Schools would be forced to merge.
Norris' law would provide a year-long period to set up a planning commission to study the process. At the end of that year, both school boards would then vote on whether to recommend approval. After that, those residing in both districts would separately vote to approve or reject the merger. The merger would require approval from voters in both districts.
Let's not sugarcoat this: What Norris' legislation would do is prevent a merger, since it's highly unlikely county voters would approve it. It also neutralizes the right of city residents to vote to surrender their school charter. Even if they vote for surrender, county residents can vote to reject it. Norris' proposed statute gives Shelby County Schools exactly what board chairman David Pickler is seeking: permanent autonomy and a legislative barrier that would maintain the current divided school systems indefinitely.
Norris told The Commercial Appeal that his legislation was designed to avoid a "hostile takeover" of county schools by city voters. We have no doubt that many in the county see Memphis' surrender of its school charter as just that. But let's not forget that it was the county school board that started this whole brouhaha by announcing its plans to gain "special district" status, freezing Memphis and its taxpayers into a disadvantageous position.
This "us versus them" mentality between city and county has brought us to this impasse. It's a lose-lose situation. Memphis public schools are populated by students who are poor and black. Shelby County schools are populated by a more diverse student body, economically and racially. Educating a middle- and upper-class student population is easier and less expensive. That's becaue these students have certain built-in advantages, including ease of transportation to optional schools and extracurricular activities, home computers, and engaged parents.
Make no mistake: There are thousands of bright, motivated, and successful students attending Memphis City Schools. The graduation rate has risen significantly in recent years. There are hundreds of dedicated teachers and administrators fighting long odds to educate a vast, disadvantaged student population and help bring them out of poverty. And yes, they are residents of Shelby County, too.
Ultimately, as Memphis goes, so goes Shelby County. It's a hard truth that many living outside the city limits don't want to acknowledge. But spreading the burden of educating the less-affluent among all of us who live in Shelby County makes sense in the long run.
Unfortunately, thanks to efforts in the state legislature, permanent segregation of two large school districts is likely to soon be the law of the land. Court battles will no doubt ensue. Get ready. It's going to be a bumpy ride.