Learning Curve

Funding our schools remains the issue of the day.

It's a teachable moment for Memphis. But it may not happen because of failing grades in deportment for Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council, aided and abetted by the class troublemaker, a news media that throws gas on any smoldering fire.

As a result, the debate about the fairness of Memphians paying twice for schools (in city and county taxes) while everyone else in Shelby County pays only once (county taxes) remains unfinished. The discussion also hasn't included whether Memphis City Schools needs city funding in the first place. Instead, the question of city funding has been largely a political tug of war.

It's a high-stakes game which will be ultimately decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court, but it was the right hand for the council to play. It triggered work on so-called "single-source funding," meaning that Shelby County Government would provide all government funding for city and county school districts.

Memphians would become just like citizens of Germantown and Bartlett: They would only pay once for schools.

The single-source funding agreement remains to be finalized, and there is an "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude in the Shelby County Administrative Building these days. It's an idea that's been talked about for 20 years, but its time may have come. However, if Memphis City Schools wins in the state's highest court, school funding reform will remain inequitable for Memphis' taxpayers.

For decades, it was the prevailing opinions in both city and county governments that Shelby County Government had no choice but to fund schools. It was constitutionally mandated. It was also the opinion on both sides of Civic Center Plaza that Memphis' funding was discretionary and it could be stopped at any time.

State law generally requires that school funding can never decrease from the previous year, but everyone thought it only applied to county government. If they had believed otherwise, city officials would never have increased funding about threefold.

It's been hard enough politically for the City Council to weather charges that it didn't care about the children of Memphis, but the school district's position in the court of public opinion improved dramatically when Superintendent Kriner Cash won the highly coveted, highly competitive $90 million grant from the Gates Foundation to improve teacher quality. Summing it up well, Cash said: "Getting an effective teacher cannot be a lottery ticket for our students. This is simply unacceptable."

Improvements can't come too soon, because higher state standards will push almost every city school into the failing column later in the year, ending the misleading announcements by the Tennessee Department of Education that about 90 percent of all Tennessee students were proficient. What they didn't tell was that to be judged proficient, students only had to get 48 percent right.

In other words, in the midst of the euphoria about the Gates Foundation grant and the crisis that's about to hit with higher state standards, it's hard for the Memphis City Council to cut through with its message about fair taxes, much less ask why Memphis City Schools needs the city money at all.

It's a curious anomaly of government budget hearings that schools never undergo the tough questioning that is common for other government agencies. In the media, council members never catch a break because school officials are treated as educators — despite an elected board of commissioners — and City Council members as politicians.

The irony of all this gnashing of teeth about city funding is that in a 10-year period, the number of workers at Memphis City Schools grew just under 50 percent and the budget increased 125 percent. This took place despite enrollment dropping 5 percent. As a point of reference, city government's workforce was flat, the budget increased 45 percent, and city population declined slightly.

And yet, Memphis City Council members are reticent to ask questions, because they know that it will trigger another blast of attacks about their commitment to children.

In truth, the council's dereliction of duty is not in asking tough questions to school administrators, but in failing to do so. Momentum has swung to the Memphis City Schools, but it's just possible that there are questions even more fundamental than whether city government is trying to shortchange our children — like whether current school funding is simply unfair and whether the district's budget ought to be smaller than its current $1 billion, just over one-third larger than the budget of city government itself.

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