School Daze

In 2014, Memphis faces a turning point in the way it educates its children.

photograph BY 444digit | Dreamstime

What’s a free education worth? We are about to find out.

Recent headline: “Germantown Will Charge Non-residents Tuition.”

More-recent headline: “Germantown Changes Position on Tuition.”

Germantown’s indecision is understandable. As things stand now, in the 2014-2015 school year, the municipality retains high-performing Houston High School and its feeder schools. Shelby County Schools (SCS) will continue to operate Germantown High School and its feeders.

My first thought on hearing this was that Germantown ought to charge $2,000 a head, not $200. Parents determined to get their kids into good schools are not to be denied. In Memphis, hundreds of them camp out in freezing temperatures to get spots in what they perceive to be the best public schools.

Private schools in Memphis, Collierville, and Germantown charge $15,000 a year or more. A family with two children, from pre-K to high school graduation, can easily spend $250,000. A couple hundred bucks — are you kidding? They spend that on cable TV.

The fall of 2014 will be the most momentous one in education in Shelby County since 1973 when forced busing began. The legal settlements, enrollment projects, and budget estimates are mere prologue. With muni’s, charter schools, the Achievement School District, SCS, and private schools competing for students, teachers, buildings, and administrators, nobody knows what it will look like in a year or two. But we can make some educated guesses based on what has already happened:

Do as I do, not as I say. Former SCS superintendent and co-superintendent of the unified school system John Aitken (before being shunned by the school board) will be superintendent of the new Collierville system. David Stephens, who was assistant superintendent of the unified SCS for a short time, jumped ship to take the superintendent’s job in Bartlett. No endorsements here of the supposedly “world-class” unified school system they helped design.

Cooperative agreements between suburbs? Not likely. There will be winners and losers. State funding follows students. The magnet effect, or flight to quality, has been demonstrated many times in Memphis and Shelby County.

Lower enrollment, higher costs for suburbs. Southern Educational Strategies, the consulting firm that did feasibility studies for the suburbs in 2012, recently lowered its enrollment forecast for Bartlett by 1,400 students and for Collierville by 400 students. New buildings will have to be paid for by suburban residents.

Who’s double taxed now? Not Memphians, unless they get a “past due” bill for millions owed to the old Memphis City Schools. Whether they have school-age children or not, suburban homeowners will pay county property taxes plus higher municipal property taxes plus a slightly higher sales tax for their educational independence. Memphians, at a combined rate of $7.78, still pay the most, but the gap is narrowing.

A “residents only” policy would result in overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent suburban systems. Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, and Lakeland are each at least 79 percent white, and their median household income is two or three times as much as Memphis ($36,817). If they were to limit their enrollment to residents, it would take some fancy footwork to keep from running afoul of a civil rights lawsuit, unless minorities move in in big numbers. Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald has warned people about making anonymous racial comments on websites.

What of Memphis? The new SCS will look a lot like the old MCS, only more spread out. Suburban systems, charter schools, and the Achievement School District will take an estimated 50,000 students from the mother ship. The common refrain is that SCS can’t do as good a job as the alternatives can. And that’s putting it nicely. SCS, which is basically Memphis, must fight.

Bigger can be better. Our schools have marching bands. We have football teams and fields. We have tradition. We have gyms and auditoriums. We have special ed. And vocational ed. And no, your well-financed charter school may not use our buildings for free.

Teaching is not a gig. Public does not mean poor. We have partnerships with local universities. We have a superintendent who sends his kids to SCS schools. We have parents who are doctors, lawyers, and architects and could send their children anywhere. It is absolutely NOT TRUE that any Memphis parents who can afford it send their children to private school.

If Memphis and SCS don’t frame their story in a positive, credible way, then others will frame it for them in a negative way.


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