Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Some of you may have caught the edweek story last week discussing the upcoming uncertainties regarding the merger of the city and county school districts in Memphis. Daniel Kiel, University of Memphis School of Law, has been part of the process since the beginning and quoted in the story. He was kind enough to share the following overview with us:
These are interesting times for public education in Memphis, to say the least. A merger of a 100,000-student urban district and a 45,000-student suburban district that has been two years in the making was completed earlier this month and the two districts now operate together as Shelby County Schools. While the details of this transition are fascinating in many respects, the dynamic that stands out for me is that the landscape seems to be both looking into the future and being tugged into the past at the same time.
The merged district will be the largest player in an increasingly decentralized system of schools. A growing number of charter schools along with the state’s Achievement School District will serve thousands of students in the area, essentially removing those students from the merged district. This, of course, is not unique to Memphis. However, the disruption of the merger allowed for the imaging of an administrative structure that seeks to maximize cooperation among school operators – district, charter, ASD – in order to both share best practices and control the area’s education spending. As more urban districts seek to find the right balance between centralization and school-level autonomy, the proposed (and admittedly untested) model could be a look into the future. [full disclosure- I served on the commission charged with planning the transition]
However, even as the merger was being planned, a parallel effort to create municipal districts in several suburban municipalities within the county emerged. Though that was stalled briefly by a federal court decision, changes in state law seem to have the cleared the path for new districts to open as early as fall 2014. The push for municipal districts has uncovered emotions and arguments about local control, educational equity, and race that not been this prominent since the busing crisis of the early 1970s, though they have likely always been there. On the immediate horizon are the opening of the school year in a month as well as votes in the suburban municipalities about whether to pursue the new districts. In the long term, the experience could provide a case study for a large scale attempt at contemporary education reform.
Professor Kiel also has two forthcoming articles on the merger. I will share them as they become available.