Perhaps, the journey to better public education in Memphis and Shelby County begins with a good, old-fashioned act of civil disobedience.

After all, it is in the instances of such acts that state government has overriding responsibility for restoring order. Maybe we could make the same principle apply to public education.

It’s because of the state’s legal responsibilities that the Tennessee Department of Education’s threats about funding cuts to Memphis City Schools are at their essence ludicrous. After all, it’s not city or county government that is charged with the Constitutional responsibility to provide public education. It is the State of Tennessee.

The Tennessee Attorney General has said it clearly: “The State has a constitutional duty to provide for a system of free public education for all K-12 school children.”

Kamakazi State Actions

To punctuate the meaning of that sentence, in a deposition given to Memphis City Council’s lawyer, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Tim Webb acknowledged that if the state withheld its funds, it would still have the legal responsibility for making sure Memphis students are educated. If it did not, it would break federal as well as state law.

So, here’s what the state is doing when its educational bureaucrats threaten to withhold $423 million in state funding from Memphis City Schools: It would shut down Memphis City Schools, but in turn, it would be forced to pick up the pieces and provide the public education for our students that the law requires.

As we’ve written before, that’s why state threats are essentially saber-rattling of the silliest kind, coming primarily as a political tit for tat in the wake of City Council’s $70 million cut in funding for Memphis City Schools.

The More The Merrier

Now entering the fray on the other side of Civic Center Plaza is the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, which is holding up approval of the budget for Shelby County Schools because of sizable raises for its top officials, including an indefensible 32 percent raise for Superintendent Bobby Webb.

In protecting his salary hike, Mr. Webb said that the board of commissioners does not have the legal authority to tell the school district how to spend its money.

He is right in that of course. But it presupposes that the board of commissioners gives him any money to spend in the first place. County district officials – like their brethren in the city district – churn out numbers showing that such administrative costs account for a minuscule amount of its budget, and like city officials, they simply miss the point. It’s not about percentages; it’s symbolic, and often, in the political environment, symbolism outranks reality.

Déjà Vu

The county commissioners have been told by the county attorney that if they don’t approve the budget by October 1, the district runs the risk of losing $171 million in state funds. “Shelby County Schools will likely be unable to operate due to lack of funding,” the attorney opined.

So what would happen? The county district would be shut down, and once again, it would be state government that would bear responsibility to provide education for the students of Shelby County.

In addition to his strong questions about the tone-deaf pay raises, Commissioner Mike Ritz – who is sponsoring a resolution that defers budget approval of the county schools’ budget – has also questioned whether state government is shortchanging our local schools under the state BEP program.

Swift – Jonathan, That Is

Here’s our modest proposal: both legislative bodies should refuse to blink and force state government to take over both school districts in hopes that they will be forced to consider the wisdom of consolidating them in the interest of equity, economy and efficiency.

It may be the only way that we ever get anything approaching the depth of attention that the Tennessee Department of Education has given to Nashville schools in recent months. It may also be the way we join the other major metropolitan counties of Tennessee in consolidating their schools into a single district.

In his revealing deposition, Commissioner Webb said that if “an approved budget is not submitted, we will begin in short order to put together a task force or a working group of people involving all stakeholders…to begin to put together an emergency response plan so that the students in the City of Memphis are not left without a free and appropriate public education.” It would seem obvious that exactly the same approach would apply if the Shelby County Board of Commissioners refuses to approve a budget for Shelby County Schools.

Finally, State Leadership

Perhaps, in the face of such crisis, it could be state government that becomes the vehicle for the kind of unified school district that is needed in Shelby County in the first place. Vested with broad authority, perhaps state government could even implement the 20-year-old plan for setting up four districts of about 40,000 students each but with an central organizational umbrella that handles non-academic functions like purchasing, human resources, finance, equal opportunity and planning and accountability.

When it reduced school funding, City Council members acted in keeping with their responsibility for setting the tax rate and setting the budgets for city services. The cut in school funding was the first – and courageous – step toward a more equitable tax structure for Memphis taxpayers, who now pay twice for public education and several other services whose final responsibility rests with Shelby County Government. It is in the interest of every parent in Memphis for the fiscal playing field to be leveled to close the tax burden disparity that exists between Memphians and non-Memphians.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Board of Commissioners did the same – acting in keeping with its responsibility for setting the tax rate and setting the budgets for county services.

Better Oversight

For too long, both city and county school districts have behaved as if they have carte blanche, and greater oversight and accountability by City Council and the Board of Commissioners are not only welcome, but overdue and justified.

In addition, we’re well past the time for the Bredesen Administration to become a full partner and progressive force for reform and change in our public education system. Because most Nashville-centric politicians see Memphis as some third-world place, we rarely get the kinds of full partnerships that other cities, especially Nashville, get from state government. In the past, the Department of Education has treated the notion of a state takeover of our school district as anathema. It’s shown no such reticence in Nashville where the full weight of the Department of Education has come to bear on that city’s district, which was put on the state’s “high priority” list a year ago.

Perhaps, it’s just time to create a crisis. After all, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.