Pitting City vs. County Doesn’t Help Students
Clay Bailey’s Aug. 3 story headlined "About time for suburbs to chant 'Told you so' to doubters of municipal school districts,” is flawed in three ways.
It ignores the history of the merger. It sets up an academically agnostic measure of success, which I believe is a dangerous precedent. Worst of all, it furthers an "us vs. them" mentality.
I served on the transition planning commission, which was formed in 2011 to effectively merge legacy Memphis City Schools and legacy Shelby County Schools.
It was clear from the beginning that the municipalities had no desire to unify. That’s why the transition commission’s plans included options with multiple school districts.
The commission’s initial desire was to keep legacy MCS and legacy SCS as one district for stability and to enjoy economies of scale. At the time, the commission believed a state law would give the combined Memphis-Shelby County school districts additional funding.
This money could have been used to support Pre-K, close reading gaps, strengthen gifted and talented programs, address pension issues and increase teacher pay. But it is important to remember that the TPC did create a multiple achievement paths model that would have allowed for community-driven decision making and municipal school design.
The second problem with Bailey’s story is that his definition of success doesn’t include any academic measures. He defined success as new school buildings and increasing taxes to do so.
That’s not success. Success is ensuring that our children are ready to solve problems that today we don’t even know exist. It is ensuring that our children are ready for college, careers or entrepreneurship.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Legacy SCS was a mediocre system, but when compared legacy MCS, suburban residents thought legacy SCS schools were great. Both systems were struggling and as community we were unwilling to acknowledge that truth.
Legacy SCS had a low college readiness rate and a low college persistence rate. The district’s financial challenges weren’t widely discussed. And a professional development director acknowledged that the district didn’t know which teachers were improving outcomes for students.
The municipal districts didn’t have to assume challenges such as pension debt, facility debt, or face any accountability from the public or media, including The Commercial Appeal.
And most importantly, municipal districts segregated themselves from intense concentrations of poverty.
The last and most egregious flaw in Bailey’s story is the "us vs. them" mentality it perpetuates.
After criticism of his initial story, Bailey added a passing reference to a damning report released last month by EdBuild which said, "The Tennessee legislature rewrites state laws to help wealthy constituents secede."
The initial story ignored the class and race issues in public education.
Let's not forgot that legacy MCS was fighting to ensure that schools in the city would have a financially stable future. They were fighting against racism and suburban parental fear that precluded them from wanting to truly integrate schools with poor black children.
In many of the public transition planning meetings, people would say "our" children, but many who represented the municipalities were not speaking about all children as "our" children. They were only focused on their piece of the pie.
That is where we as a community erred: We should not have been trying to carve up a pie. We should have been trying to live into the promise of building the world-class school system that we stated we would provide.
Be clear about what I am not saying: I am not calling the beneficiaries of the municipal systems racist. But systemic actions that are exclusionary toward one group are racist. People can benefit from those acts, regardless of whether the individual is racist.
I need all schools in Shelby County – including municipal schools – to be successful because I care about EVERY child in Shelby County.
We deserve robust educational reporting and a shared vision for education for the entire county. Not just a plan to sit on a shelf, but a plan of action that results in a new vision for collective action that has a role for all members of community in supporting public education.
When we love ALL our students and our entire county has a world-class education system, we can all say “I told you so.”
Kenya Bradshaw is vice president of engagement for The New Teacher Project, and former executive director of Stand for Children.