Sunday, April 27, 2008

City Council Prepares To Throw Grenade Into School Funding

A decision by Memphis City Council to cut city schools funding will create chaos.

A decision to cut school funding will throw city and county budget hearings into turmoil.

A decision to cut school funding will create havoc in the budget of Memphis City Schools.

A decision to cut school funding will explode into political name-calling and recriminations.

And yet, Memphis City Council should do it.

Forcing Change

We know it’s not the optimal way to create public policy, but it’s clear that doing the same thing and expecting different results is not only the definition of insanity, but the definition of political myopia at City Hall.

After all, we’ve been talking for 25 years about placing all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base. We’ve been talking for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, the city tax rate has moved up and the middle class has moved out.

Memphis Rocks

If one thing is clearer than the unfair Memphis tax burden, it is that the inequity will continue to rock along until somebody like the Memphis City Council tosses a grenade into the system. Otherwise, nothing will change, leaving Memphians with strong financial incentives to leave the city for the suburbs.

We’ve written before about the obvious logic of single source funding for Memphis and Shelby County Schools and the obvious need to eliminate Memphians paying twice for public schools while every one outside of the Memphis city limits pays once.

When Memphis began to fund schools six decades ago, it was likely because the rural-dominated county government paid scant attention to anything inside Memphis and took a rural view of schools. It was equally likely that Memphians wanted more from their schools than the small county district did and the needs of the county district drove funding decisions.

Taxes Matter

But times have clearly changed. County government bears no resemblance to 30 years ago, much less 60 years, and today, the lion’s share of its budget is spent for services within the city limits of Memphis.

It would be better if we had a closely coordinated school funding plan between Memphis City Schools, Memphis city government and Shelby County Government, but there’s nothing like a crisis to get everyone focused – and truth be told, we haven’t focused at all yet on the need to equalize and rationalize the Memphis tax rate.

If experience has taught us anything as Memphis’ middle class hollowed out, it is this – taxes matter, but what matters most is whether there is a lack of public confidence that the high level of taxation is producing high level public services. People have been voting with their feet on this issue for more than a decade.

A Decade Late

There is of course the serious question about whether county government will replace the city’s cut in funds to Memphis City Schools, and if it did replace the funding completing, it would result in a county tax increase of about 90 cents. Of course, the city tax rate would be cut by about the same amount.

In other words, changes in school funding aren’t going to create a windfall for Memphis taxpayers, but it could in fact spread school funding across the county’s larger tax base, and miracle of miracles, it might even encourage a little more open-mindedness among the town mayors on the issue of consolidation.

It would have been better if this had been done back when the city’s funding for schools was $60 million, back in the days when Memphis businessman Russell Gwatney was sounding the alarm of the unsustainable school funding structure. It’s hard to believe that it was about 10 years ago that he first rolled out his plan for single source funding, but now, it seems inarguable that he was right.

Political Trump Card

The problem back then was that his proposal kept being assigned to special task forces created more by county government as a way to defuse the political pressure building for change than in developing new, fairer ways of funding city and county schools. Time after time, single source funding fell victim to the lack of political leadership to get it done and to the no-tax pledges taken by a majority of county officials.

It hardly mattered that it is Shelby County Government’s – not Memphis’ - legal responsibility to fund public education, and each time, the committees issued recommendations that went nowhere, called for more study or ended up at loggerheads because of partisan political interests.

With a Democratic mayor and legislative majority in county government, the pro-suburb attitude that has characterized Shelby County Government for a century should finally be diminishing, and if so, perhaps single source funding is an idea whose time has come.


Back then, Mr. Gwatney pointed out correctly that tax revenues could not keep pace with the rapid expansion of operating and capital expenditures for schools. From 1994 to 2000, he said, the combined spending for both school systems increased $555.5 million, an increase for city schools of 75 percent and 61 percent for county schools.

He also honed in on ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements that called for county government to send a proportional amount to the city district every time a new county school was built, meaning that a $30 million county school resulted in about $70 million going to city schools.

Changing Things

To address these problems, Mr. Gwatney laid out the following recommendations:

* Establish county government as the single source of funding for operations and maintenance of city and county schools districts

* Establish a city-county school construction authority to oversee all capital construction projects for both districts

* Establish two capital improvement districts for city and county schools, and each district would be responsible for any debt issued on its behalf.

* City and county school boundaries would be frozen for 13 years (one educational cycle)

* Establish strong systemwide accountability and performance standards

* Support passage of half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to the capital improvement of schools

* Eliminate the ADA requirements for school construction

Real Progress

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, City Council’s determination to change things could spark a re-look at the recommendations in hopes of making the kind of fundamental shift in public policy that represents serious progress in tax equity and school funding.


Anonymous said...

The writer of this blog should be mayor -- of both city AND county. Whoever writes this blog is brilliant, has incredible insight and vision. Now if only our elected leaders would 1) read and 2)take his/her advice.

Anonymous said...

So very happy to see you take this position. I absolutely agree and hope that City Council will take your advice. It won't be pretty, but it's not pretty now. We need to rationalize funding for public schools, and this is a first critical step in doing it.

Carol Coletta said...

And once we've rationalized funding, I propose that the County set up a Shelby County Education Board of Governors that will have four critical responsibilities:

(1) Determine how much money is needed for educating all children in Shelby County and report that to legislators.

(2) Select education providers. These could be existing city and county systems, charter schools, and other providers who may emerge. This could result in multiple smaller "districts" that may be based on geography, but could also be based on types of students, grade levels, style of pedagogy, or any number of other factors.

(3) Determine any financial adjustments that should be made for at-risk students.

(4) Measure and report education and financial results of providers and make changes accordingly.

The Board of Governors will NOT act as education providers. The Board of Governors will select others to provide education, finance them, and measure and report results.

Then we might be on our way to real change.

Anonymous said...

While I am not sure whether or not I agree with you on this point. I would point out that this is terrible timing. It is going to be hard enough to recruit a top notch superintendent under current circumstances. What will facing a ten percent budget cut do to the potential candidate pool?

However, I can also make the argument that there is never a good time and full speed ahead.

Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas. Only almost all of the MCS students are at risk students.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps city council could put some strings on the money requiring accountability. Of course, we would want a third party to monitor this as neither the city council or the school district do very well with this concept.

If you doubt me on the city council, just look at the money going to LeMoyne Owen. Or did the city council mean to be paying for day care facilities at Lemoyne?

Carol said...

But anonymous, here's the point: This is not about punishing MCS. This is about rationalizing the taxes we pay for schools in Shelby County (our single biggest expense). Memphis should never have assumed this expense. Education is a county responsibility at the local level.

Everyone forgets that Memphis taxpayers are also Shelby County taxpayers. So every time Memphis and Shelby County share an expense, Memphians pay twice. So, if the City and County governments split the cost of, say, the Pyramid, Memphians pay twice -- once as Memphians and again as Shelby Countians.

As Tom points out, this is a way to spread the cost of education over a larger tax base. And it is an expense that is a Shelby County responsibility.

fieldguidetomemphis said...

Isn't this funding issue hinting at one of the reasons why people left the MCS school system for SCS or private schools to begin with? If we are going to do a massive shake-up of the funding for public schools in our community, let's go all-out and be really honest in addressing what is going on - schools in our community were never meaningfully integrated under Brown v. Board, and the educational problems that we are discussing today are a direct result of White and Middle Class flight starting forty years ago.

Think of all the ways that have been created for students to not have to interact with one another: schools within schools (optional schools), separate city and county schools, a thriving private/parochial school realm (with the exception of Catholic schools), and homeschooling. We have created and maintained a very sophisticated way to allow people to opt-out of public schools.

Using property taxes to fund public schools is an incentive for people to flee the city for the suburbs (or DeSoto County). San Antonio v. Rodriguez legitimized this - you can't legislate where people live, so if some schools are poorer because the families who pay taxes there are poorer, well, that's their choice. They could move the county if they wanted - which is what people do when they have the resources and capacity and access and opportunity.

The real problem here is that nobody is addressing the real problem here: many people in Memphis are in poverty and low-income. And being in poverty and being low-income has serious educational repercussions for kids. It costs more to educate them. And they are more likely to be behind grade level in reading and math, which causes big problems down the road.

The tax burden on people in Memphis city is disproportionate and unfair and should be addressed. But we should acknowledge that a 90-cent increase for county residents to buoy city schools is only a short-term fix. The solution is to raise household incomes so that the schools become sustainable and improve from the inside out. Everyone does better when everyone does better.

If we do nothing to address the economic situation of poor and low-income people in Memphis, then we will have to continue to find ways to subsidize the problems caused by educational inequality.

It's a good first step to distribute the burden of funding education more equally among city and county residents, but the solution can't end there. There are many jobs in Memphis that can't be filled with the existing labor pool, and the existing labor pool - 100,000 people between 18-35 with less than or only a high school diploma - who are only eligible for low-paying jobs without benefits, long-term security and a career ladder with prospects of upward mobility.

Kids are at the mercy of the families and communities they live in and the schools they attend. They don't choose their socioeconomic status, but rather they learn what they live. So long as we have an economic underclass, we will continue to have educational apartheid - which will maintain the economic underclass and so on and so on.

Anonymous said...

fieldguidetomemphis - finally, someone who is willing to address the root problems. Excellent insight!

Anonymous said...

Dear Fieldguide,

The while/middle class flight began in Memphis in the early 1970's with the move to integrate and the rise of busing. To his credit, and this is probably the only positive aspect of his tenure as superintendent, then superintendent Herenton started the "magnet schools," which we now call optional schools. Positive in that they were an attempt to increase the quality of the schools. These magnets were developed, at least in part, to retain white students in the public system. Unfortunately they contributed significantly to the within school segregation which has marked much of public education in the post Brown period. They also institutionalized the dual system of education, though now based more on class than race.

While your observations on poverty and low income are right on target, no one has the solution to this short of a complete change in our political economy. A good start might be a living wage, however, I would argue for a maximum wage bill as well.

However, such changes are not on the political horizon and therefore a different approach to the current situation is necessary. The suggestion here is focused on a "rationalization" of fundinig for schools. It does not attempt to address the far greater problems of poverty and the attendant poor quality of education in the city, county, and/or state.