Saturday, June 14, 2008

State Ed Officials Rattle Sabers After Dodging Help

The chest thumping by the Tennessee Department of Education about cutting $423 million in state money for Memphis City Schools unless City Council restores city funding is in the end headline-grabbing but little more than an empty threat.

After all, a cut in funding of that amount hurts no one as much as the Department of Education itself. At the end of the day, the State of Tennessee is responsible for educating our children, so cutting funding really doesn’t cause anybody more trouble than state educational bureaucrats.

Also, if the state department of education couldn’t manage to do anything substantive and show real leadership when Memphis City Schools was a “high priority district,” it’s hard to imagine it playing out that way now. Back then, the options included holding the district’s academic feet to the fire and even taking over control, but in the end, Tennessee Department of Education did little more than nibble around the edges to encourage district improvement.

The Best Predictor Of The Future

So, now we are expected to believe that these same people in Nashville will now have the spine to shut down the entire district and actually face the prospect of having to take over operations of Memphis City Schools.

From a political point of view, and this really political theater at its essence, this threat by the Department of Education is toothless because its target – Memphis City Council – isn’t really hit by this shot across the bow.

More to the point, it’s hard to imagine Governor Phil Bredesen allowing state education officials to follow through with this threat, according to close political allies of his. After all, he too has resolutely avoided being pulled into the educational controversies in Memphis although state law gives him a great deal of power – unexercised power – over the city district.

Pulling The Trigger

For example, the governor has had the power to set in motion changes that could put Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton in charge of the district, but clearly, there’s no appetite in the Capitol to wade into what is seen as the quicksand that is Memphis politics.

At this point, all of this back and forth has one obvious outcome – a court ruling.

First off, there are dueling and conflicting legal opinions from all sides – state, city and school district – so it appears obvious that only the courts (eventually, the Tennessee Supreme Court) will resolve the fundamental questions at issue.

In addition to the question of whether Memphis City Council can cut its funding for schools, there’s an even more interesting issue to be resolved. Way back when, the city district abdicated its taxing authority to city government in return for funding, and if the funding cut is legal, does it then give the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners the right to pass its own taxes?

Conventional Wisdom

Usually, there is normally a certain underlying logic in laws and legal precedents, and it’s baffling to think that based on a decision made 60 years ago, city government is powerless to decide what services – including schools - it can afford to fund. There’s never been any confusion about it in Memphis and Shelby County Governments, where for 30 years, it has been thought that city government could eliminate its funding at any time, because it was county government that had legal responsibility for public education.

In fact, about a decade ago, when city and county governments were considering ways to rationalize their respective responsibilities in the wake of the “toy town” controversy, a preliminary plan called for city government to eliminate its funding as part of a plan to reduce the city budget.

Besides the need for a court to make a determination on the issues at stake, the court test is also a safe political position for the governor to take, political friends speculate. “After all, why take sides in a contentious political debate In Memphis when they (the governor’s office) can avoid it all by saying that a judge needs to decide these questions?” one said.

Full State Partnerships

While we’re on the subject of the Tennessee Department of Education, officials there – like many people throughout state government in Nashville – consider Memphis as a third world where the wisest course of action is often to avoid it at all costs. As a result, we rarely get the kind of full partnerships from state government that we need to deal with the challenges before us.

We think of this as we watch the difference in attitude and action as DOE bureaucrats treat problems in the Metro Nashville Public Schools since it was put on the state’s “high priority” list, compared to the way it reacted when Memphis City Schools was on that list.

It’s worth remembering that even though the Nashville district is on the state list, the schools there still outperform our own. For reasons that we have explained frequently before, Memphis City Schools is not now a “high priority” district, but that is highly likely to change in the next 24 months.

The Dichotomy

Back to DOE’s preferential treatment of the Nashville school district, it was less than a year ago that Department of Education, given a chance to force transformative change in our district, accepted the so-called and aptly named Proposal for Expenditures of Additional State Revenues,” largely a list of everybody’s favorite ideas with no thread of academic philosophy underpinning them.

Compare that to Nashville. There, the DOE mobilized into action and focused its considerable influence and resources on turning things around. In a move announced last Thursday, DOE announced that it would step in to set up leadership for the district because of the current disarray and the uncompleted search for a new superintendent.

A Vanderbilt University education expert said that these drastic measures are generally reserved for districts in worse condition. DOE’s action in Nashville has been called the single largest school district reform effort ever undertaken in Tennessee, begging the question of what it would take to get that much assertive action out of state government to help here.


At a time when DOE has treated a “state take over” of even a few schools in our district as a petrifying idea, there has been no such reticence in Nashville. Perhaps, it’s the political equivalent of “out of sight, out of mind.”

With Nashville media daily and loudly trumpeting the serious problems in their schools, state officials were being reminded constantly that something needed to be done and Nashville reporters regularly called DOE to ask what its officials were going to do to fix things.

Obviously, it’s easier for DOE to ignore problems 210 miles away in a city that too often accepts poor schools as a simple fact of life. It’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but that’s certainly true when it’s the squeaky wheel that you have to hear all day long every day.


Midtowner said...

Ultimately tho, if the city council sticks to its guns, there is little to nothing the courts or the state can do. So what if the court says the city must fund the schools ... what happens if the city continues to refuse to do so? Nothing.

The state's only leverage is funding but the state constitution requires the state ... not the city or county ... to provide a free education. So in the end, the state is required to provide the education. So therefore, it would be unconstitutional for it not to fund the schools. And given the state supreme courts idiotic ruling a few years back about teachers' salaries, then that only reinforces the state's role.

As someone else has proposed, maybe we should file a class action suit against the school board for wasting our money and malfeasance for suing the city.

Smart City Consulting said...

We think that City Council would never ignore the directive of the Tennessee Supreme Court, where this is likely to be headed. Of course, it would also have the U.S. Supreme Court if the ruling is not to its liking, and we would hope that it will pursue its position as assertively as possible

Anonymous said...

State government would love to jettison Memphis entirely, and individuals in state government will state that fact privately, although not publicly (yet).

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain how the courts will rule on this one. Seems like there is plenty for them to go either way. It will ultimately cost us tax payers plenty for these three or four (city council, state legislature, school board, and Governor, in the form of the department of ed) elected bodies to figure out what they should do.

Anonymous said...

This is an opportunity for those who would want to be Mayor of either Memphis or Shelby County to demonstrate their leadership.

We Memphians have clearly been paying twice to educate our Memphis Children. Clearly State Courts and Federal Courts have ruled more than a few years ago on the constitutionality of "one man, on vote" and decided that the governmental unit responsible for equitable distribution of school dollars in TN was... the COUNTIES! Memphis is just ONE of seven cities in the County of Shelby.

In the early 90's when White Republicans controlled the County Commission, THEY refused to adequately FUND education particularly for the Memphis system just after they had wasted $655 millions on building 30 brand new county schools so White parents could avoid Memphis Black children by moving to ever expanding Shelby County suburbs. This $655 million is now the basis of the County’s current $2 billion debt refinanced many times since the initial bond deal but never paid down or off!

Because the White Republican Controlled County Commission wouldn’t raise taxes or fees to air conditions 90% of Memphis Schools… in order to air condition those Memphis' schools, the Memphis City Council allotted $100 million in 1995 and the habit kind of stuck around until now!

Solution: Now that the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission are NOW Democratic controlled and more sensitive to its African American population than it ever has been… the Memphis City Council rightfully has lowered Memphis’ taxes 18 cents… and the “free taxation rides” for the County’s non-Memphis taxpayers should end. The Shelby County Commission should RAISE county taxes by exactly 18 and the money should be used to 1) restore the $72 million to cut from the Memphis Schools budget 2) Give Shelby County schools their approximate $28 million by ADA formula and 3) use the remainder to primarily pay down the $2 Billion debt and/or balance the County’s budget without expanding services or raise fees!

Signed: A Black Memphis Democrat
(and those that know: know who)

Anonymous said...

"building 30 brand new county schools so White parents could avoid Memphis Black children by moving to ever expanding Shelby County suburbs."

and that's a problem, somehow?
suburbs rule!

Anonymous said...

Uh, yes anon 8:34, it's a problem if it causes county debt to balloon to unmanageable levels and causes our county taxes to be raised to pay for soemthing that was based on whitey politicians pandering to their white bible-thumping xtian base. smartguy.

Anonymous said...


yep got me on that one.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 9:34: Very well-said. What's insidious to us is that the county schools got money hand over fist for years, but anytime that the city schools got money which was much needed for its decaying schools, we always had to talk about changing the ADA law. City schools have been ignored for way too long as county schools received preferential treatment.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 8:34:

If suburbs do in fact rule, they should first pay a fair share of the tax burden. We have subsidized their lifestyle choices way too long.