It appears that the Task Force For Quality Education is about to unveil its final report, and it’s all beginning to sound like an old conversation.

Champions for Memphis City Schools are expecting the worst, suspecting that the recent flurry of activity by Shelby County Schools to breathe life into its proposal to become a special district is foreshadowing of the report’s recommendations.

In a way, it all just seems too bizarre, considering the fact that the task force began as a group convened by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton to consider consolidation and now seems poised to give validity to the county district’s position.

Shelby County Schools Board Chairman David Pickler set the tone recently for the upcoming debate by blaming school problems on Memphis annexations. In truth, they are more likely caused by the county’s tendency to build schools that aren’t needed, build them where they shouldn’t be located and create attendance zones that seem intended to create a separate but equal system.

Logic Lost

It’s been almost two years since Mayor Herenton convened the group of civic leaders to hear his presentation – the most thorough, documented and intelligent one ever made in this community about the wisdom of our dual school systems being merged into a single unified system.

It was his attempt to set in motion a process that would consider the consolidation of the city and county schools systems, and the logic of his argument, based on the data that he presented, should have made it a priority for public debate.

However, the substance of his presentation got no media coverage, because reporters were instead captivated by the no-shows of the petulant chairs of the two school systems, Wanda Halbert and Mr. Pickler. Rather than setting the stage for a much-needed civic conversation about educational policy, the media instead sacrificed policy debate on the reliable altar of personality conflict.

It was a lesson in how much any proposal by Mayor Herenton polarizes the community, and within four months, he had bowed out. In truth, the mayor’s proposal hardly reflected consolidation as we know it. Rather, it was a pragmatic merger of operational services, while setting up five academic districts with approximately 41 schools and 32,000 students in each.

Political Pragmatism

It was anything but a bomb-throwing performance by Mayor Herenton. After all, a similar structure had been proposed almost 20 years earlier by former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris, who saw it as eliminate the county’s onerous debt. Two decades and $1 billion in county debt later, it’s clear that he was on the right track.

In City Hall, the Task Force for Quality Education is called simply the “hijacked committee,” since by the time Herenton waved the white flag and abandoned yet another of his priorities, city officials considered the committee hijacked by interests largely sympathetic to the positions of the Shelby County Board of Education.

In its final report, the task force is expected to spotlight:

• School funding, which feels like an outdated conversation about a subject whose relevancy has faded;

• International competitiveness, complete with graphs of data already proven simplistic by researchers;

• Assumptions about public perceptions about public education that have more to say about the inability of city schools to mount a persuasive communications campaign than the realities of county schools;

• Construction cost comparisons that hail the county’s cheaper schools, failing to grasp the central fact that building cheaper schools isn’t the same as building better schools or building community; and

• Some time-honored bromides like we need to make quality education a priority and fund it accordingly (although we invest more than $1 billion a year now) and the nation’s strongest suburbs surround the strongest cities (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

Missing The Target

More to the point, the report seems built on the premise that the conflict between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools is caused by their competition for scarce local funds. That conclusion is wide of the target and trivializes the deep differences that have more to do with the county district’s political opportunism and narrow political agendas (pick almost any quote by Mr. Pickler) and the tendency for the tail to wag the dog on questions of public education. In fact, in 20 years of debate about school funding and school construction funds, it’s actually remarkable that competition for funds has never come up.

It’s stunning how successful Shelby County Schools has been in selling its bundled special interests as enlightened public policy. As we’ve said before, it may have more to say on the shortcomings of Memphis City Schools to articulate its vision, its more innovative programs and its indicators of progress.

But the real meat of the report begins on page 23, where the major conclusions and recommendations are listed, including two with special districts and one with a consolidated district.

One of the lures of the special district approach apparently is that it could freeze current school boundaries, but it seems lost in translation that the boundaries are already frozen by the state law on urban growth boundaries. As a result, Shelby County Schools will inevitably be comprised of only the students living within the smaller municipalities, extreme northeast Shelby County and the Shelby Forest area.

Nothing Special

There no excuse these days for anyone, including Mr. Pickler, to act like annexation is the root of these problems, because ever since Chapter 1101 required the setting of growth boundaries, for the first time, every one buying a house in Shelby County knows what school district they ultimately will be in. (More to the point, only about 28 percent of the families in Shelby County have children in school anyway, so for the vast majority, the issue of school districts is a non-starter in decisions about where to live.)

For the record, Tennessee has 135 school systems, and only 14 of them are special districts. As we’ve pointed out before, the trend is toward consolidation (Shelby County is the only non-consolidated metro district in the state), and financial analyses show that these merged districts are less costly, contrary to the rhetoric of county board members.

The number of county students peaked in 1999 with 48,770 students, and over a 10-year period, its enrollment was largely flat. Projected enrollment for 2010 is less than 40,000, and by 2015, enrollment will be about 35,000 and continue to decline to about 30,000 by 2020.

As some other issues in the report, the freezing of the districts is a subject that had some legs 10-15 years ago, but these days, it’s resolved. And if the county district expects any widespread support for it becoming a special district, it needs to make a case for it, including the impacts on finances and academics.

The Real Problem

The report says it’s about school funding and governance reform, but it fails to mention the most problematic fact of life of all – we have one of the nation’s most regressive tax structures in the U.S. The “real” answer may actually lie in a more progressive, equitable tax structure, but that would require a different conversation than the one taken up by the task force.

The report also reportedly keeps its distance from the devastating impact of sprawl, the interlocking relationship between county schools’ decisions and sprawl and the absence of new policies to change land use patterns. There are public policy decisions that could have mitigated the growing county budget in the past, but the free spending attitude of Shelby County Schools and the placement of schools to benefit favorite developers drove county debt up and fueled sprawl out.

Here’s one recommendation that could make the most difference. Shelby County Schools doesn’t need to build any new schools, except for maybe one elementary school. If the Shelby County Board of Commissioners wants to do something innovative, it should simply refuse to fund any more county schools – except for one elementary school – and adopt a simple, straightforward policy: if a school needs to be built in Memphis’ annexation reserve area, Memphis City Schools should build it.