Breakaway districts

Memphis-Shelby County spotlighted in national report on school district secession

PHOTO: EdBuild
Six suburban towns pulled out of Shelby County Schools in 2014 to start their own districts in the wake of the 2013 consolidation of city and county schools.

The 2014 exodus of six suburban towns from the newly consolidated Memphis school system is one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class, says a new report.

The Shelby County towns are among 47 that have seceded from large school districts nationally since 2000. Another nine, including the town of Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tenn., are actively pursuing separation, according to the report released Wednesday by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality.

EdBuild researchers said the growing trend toward school secession is cementing segregation along socioeconomic and racial lines and exacerbating inequities in public education.

And Shelby County is among the worst examples, they say.

“The case of Memphis and Shelby County is an extreme example of how imbalanced political power, our local school-funding model, and the allowance of secession can be disastrous for children,” the report says.

After the 2014 pullout, Shelby County Schools had to slash its budget, close schools under declining enrollment, and lay off hundreds of teachers. Meanwhile, the six suburban towns of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington have faced challenges with funding and facilities as they’ve worked to build their school systems from the ground up.

The report says Tennessee’s law is among the most permissive of the 30 states that allow some communities to secede from larger school districts. It allows a municipality with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

PHOTO: EdBuild
States that don’t prohibit secession from school districts are shaded in blue.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities. This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students,” said EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia. “This is the confluence of a school funding system that incentivizes communities to cordon off wealth and the permissive processes that enable them to do just that.”

The Shelby County pullout is known in Memphis as the “de-merger,” which happened one year after the historic 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the suburban county district known as Legacy Shelby County Schools. The massive changes occurred as a result of a series of chess moves that began in 2010 after voters elected a Republican supermajority in Tennessee for the first time in history.

Under the new political climate, Shelby County’s mostly white and more affluent suburbs sought to establish a special school district that could have stopped countywide funding from flowing to the mostly black and lower income Memphis district. In a preemptive strike, the city’s school board surrendered its charter and Memphians voted soon after to consolidate the city and county districts. The suburbs — frustrated over becoming a partner in a consolidated school system they didn’t vote for — soon convinced the legislature to change a state law allowing them to break away and form their own districts, which they did.

Terry Roland, a Shelby County commissioner who supported the pullouts, said the secession wasn’t about race, but about having local control and creating better opportunities for students in their communities. “There are a lot of problems in the inner city and big city that we don’t have in municipalities in terms of poverty and crime,” Roland told Chalkbeat on the eve of the report’s release. “We’re able to give folks more opportunities because our schools are smaller.”

The report asserts that money was at the root of the pullouts. Through taxes raised at the countywide level, suburban residents were financially supporting Memphis City Schools. The effort to create a special school district was aimed at raising funds that would stay with suburban schools and potentially doing away with a shared countywide property tax, which would have been disastrous for the Memphis district.

"These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result."Rebecca Sibilia, CEO, EdBuild

“What we’re talking about here is the notion of people pulling out of a tax base that’s for the public good,” Sibilia said. “That’s akin to saying you’re not going to pay taxes for a library because you’re not going to use it. … You can see this as racially motivated, but we found it was motivated much more by socioeconomics.”

The report asserts that funding new smaller districts is inefficient and wasteful.

The United States spends $3,200 more on students enrolled in small districts (of fewer than 3,000 students) than on the larger districts (of 25,000 to 49,999 students), according to the report. Small districts also tend to spend about 60 percent more per pupil on administrative costs.

Under Tennessee’s current law, Sibilia believes the Shelby County de-merger is only the first of more secessions to come. She notes that Tennessee’s law is similar to one in Alabama, where a fourth of the nation’s secessions have occurred. Already in Chattanooga, residents of Signal Mountain are in their second year of studying whether to leave the Hamilton County Department of Education.

“There’s a direct link between very permissive policies and the number of communities that take advantage of them,” Sibilia said. “These policies are still relatively new in Tennessee. But I think a tsunami is coming as a result.”

Editor’s note: Details about the merger-demerger have been added to this version of the story.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”