Racial Integration, School Funding, & the Battle for Memphis City Schools Charter

Memphis Baptist Ministers Association attending Shelby County School Board Meeting 

[Editor’s Note: With all the talk of inequitable school funding brought about by Kelley Williams-Bolar’s case. Today, my man Shady Grady tackling the issue centered around the battle over funding here in Memphis.]

by Shady Grady

How important is integration?  Are you more focused on desegregation-the removal of formalized legal barriers that prevented black people from living in certain neighborhoods, marrying non-black people, attending certain schools, working in certain jobs, or doing anything that a white person could do.

That distinction is important to some people. Black conservatives and nationalists (and those with a foot in both camps like the Nation of Islam) weren’t altogether satisfied with the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that put the de jure segregation system on its death bed.

Few thought that segregation was a good thing but instead argued:

1) Having some control over the education of black children was a good thing compared to the alternative

2) The social science used to justify the Court’s decision was lacking and patronizing

3) The implication that Black children had to be around white children/ administrators/ teachers to be successful was deeply insulting.  Zora Neale Hurston was particularly incensed.

These are not just academic questions. A member of the Memphis School Board, a Black man named Martavius Jones has, in what amounts to a Xanatos Gambit proposed completely eliminating the Memphis City School System.
MEMPHIS — Upon returning to his hometown after more than a decade away, Martavius Jones began spending his evenings at school board meetings.

A peculiar hobby, as he had no children, but Mr. Jones was bothered by the sorry reputation of the schools that produced him and, as a financial adviser, interested in the handful of pension plans in the system. Seven years later, he was a board member. In 2009, he served a term as president.

And this past Nov. 22, Mr. Jones proposed doing away with the Memphis city school system altogether.

The voluntary surrender of the city schools’ charter, since backed by the City Council and most of the school board, has led to an extraordinary standoff between Tennessee’s largest county and its largest city, a showdown charged with issues of money, politics, class and race.

It is headed for a citywide referendum in March,and if it is approved, the residents of Memphis and surrounding Shelby County are likely to find themselves together in uncharted territory.

[…] The surrender, as Mr. Flinn describes it, was a pre-emptive strike, a way to head off a plan by the separate county school system that could have led to a drastic shortfall in city school revenues. With no Memphis school system, the city schools instead would become the county’s responsibility.

Opponents of the move, an unlikely coalition of suburban residents, Republican state lawmakers, a Memphis teachers’ union and several of the city’s black ministers, see it as an unnecessary provocation, one that could end up hurting schools countywide.

The city of Memphis sprawls over most of Shelby County, its residents making up around three-quarters of the county’s population. But city and county have maintained semi-separate governments — two mayors, a city council and a county commission and separate city and county school systems. Plans to merge the two governments have been frequently put forth, though the most recent proposal, which left the schools out, was rejected in November. Opposition came mainly from the suburbs.

Like many in the suburbs, David Pickler, chairman of the county school board, has long harbored plans for a so-called special district of non-Memphis schools. Such a district would freeze the boundaries of the county school system, thus preserving county control and blocking any effort at a consolidated system.

The creation of special districts, which proliferated in Tennessee after school integration, was banned in 1982. But Republicans just won an unprecedented majority in the state legislature, and with the Republicans’ suburban base, a special district in Shelby County appeared highly likely.

Memphians watched this with concern. (source)Now this is funny because it makes strange bedfellows of groups that would otherwise cheerfully despise each other. Let’s call a spade a spade here, no pun intended. In the years since the Brown decision many whites made it abundantly clear that they weren’t overly thrilled with the idea of attending schools with high black enrollment.

They placed their children in private schools or moved their families to areas with fewer black citizens. Suburban residents are not likely to want a consolidated school district. That is, after all, part of the reason they’re in the suburbs in the first place.

The other side of the equation is from the city viewpoint do you really want to claim that you are so incompetent and impoverished that you need the county to essentially take over your system? What about pride? Can you not fix your own issues?

While nearly half the students in suburban schools are minorities, the county school board is entirely white, something that would certainly change with countywide elections.

But opinions do not fall neatly along racial lines. Some of the city’s black ministers oppose the surrender, seeing it as too divisive.

“Like busing,” said Rev. Dwight Montgomery, who leads the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Busing hurt. It seemed like a good idea.”

Ads for private schools have become more frequent, suburban residents say. Suburban municipalities are considering creating their own districts.But perhaps Mr. Jones is clever like a fox. If his plan leads to greater black representation on the county school board and better educational opportunities for the children of Memphis what could be wrong with that. Are his black critics just stuck in the seventies? If you went to a “white” college or work at a “white” corporation, do you really have any room to criticize Mr. Jones’ plan?

NOTE: Facts About Memphis City Schools

So what do you think? Is this a wise plan which will improve the Memphis school system? Or is it just abject and total surrender of leadership? Is it fair that Memphis City Schools lose County ($60M), State, and Federal funding should Shelby County schools become a SSD (Special School District) in an attempt to block future consolidation by Shelby County lawmakers? If you don’t like this idea, what’s your alternative?

Shady Grady blogs at the award winning blog The Urban Politico  and comments just about everywhere intelligent people can be found